Battle of the Bands, the latest from Victory Gardens' Playwrights Ensemble member Dean Corrin, looks and acts like an exceptionally clever television comedy. Here we have middle-class values, harried working mom, lovable goofball dad--the whole nine yards. Little brother Dougie is never on stage, so daughter Gina (played by the bubbly and bright Karlie Nurse) serves as the requisite wise and wise-cracking 15-year-old, preternaturally hip to the ways of the world. "Listen, your Uncle Mike is going to be staying with us for a while," Phil Ridarelli as Steven gingerly explains. "Why?" answers Gina dryly. "Is he getting a divorce?"
But, hey, a good sitcom can be a lot of fun--especially one that sustains its gentle emotional probing and laugh-a-minute banter for the length of a whole play. Corrin is a solid comic writer, and if his storytelling often lingers in places where we've long since gotten the point, that only allows him to roll out a few more first-class jokes. Steven, taking out his old band outfit and stretching an ancient, fringed leather vest across his double-wide, fortysomething frame, is funny. Poor Gina explaining how she was knocked unconscious by a hapless drummer in her marching band's first performance is very funny. And when that same hapless drummer (a wide-eyed doofus brought to life by Justin Cholewa) shows up to audition for the brothers' band, he's amusingly under the impression that the group's name is "send resume to."
The play's emotional movement is toward a resolution between Michael and his wife: When he has exhausted the fun to be had with his big brother and with Claire, a dim-bulb co-ed turned groupie, will he return to the nest? Corrin also forces Steven and Janet to reexamine their own marriage; Steven, in particular, is on some level evaluating the road down which life has taken him. The playwright doesn't tackle these issues with any great insight and the resolutions are neither more nor less surprising than what you'd get on, say, Family Ties. Still, we are treated to some genuinely rollicking situations, a ton of a sharp banter, and even a poignant moment or two along the way.
All of this is very nicely directed by Sandy Shiner and acted by a swell ensemble led by Ridarelli, who brings a chubby Everyman quality to Steven. When this accountant and soccer coach straps on his old bass and makes hilarious "watch-me-rock" gestures, you can see why daughter Gina rolls her eyes but also why wife Janet thinks his enthusiasm is a little sexy. James Krag's Michael is charming and insensitive, funny and just a little off; to both Corrin's credit and Krag's, Michael isn't sure he wants his marriage to work...and neither are we.
Battle of the Bands takes place in Wichita but, except for a second act plot point revolving around Kansas City, it could be set anywhere in America. That's because Corrin is attempting nothing more complicated than a loving little family drama about nostalgia and ambition. The sort of things that happen in the play happen all the time, all over the country, and that is part of why Battle of the Bands is so entertaining. Corrin brings us into his world completely and, though we don't learn much while there, it's certainly a fun place to spend a couple of hours.