Tim Dickinson, David Holmes, J. Scott Browning,and Ricky Culbertson in Forever Plaid
Tim Dickinson, David Holmes, J. Scott Browning,
and Ricky Culbertson in Forever Plaid
The day that I landed in Sacramento, there was an article in USA Today saying that Hollywood would be paying more attention to California's state capital now that Arnold Schwarznegger was about to take residence in the governor's mansion. But what of theater? Is there any to be had in California's state capital?

Plenty, I was told by Matthew Burlingame, a heavyset, goateed young playwright who was wearing a nun's habit. (Well, we did meet at a costume party.) He said that there are no fewer than 56 theater companies occupying or sharing approximately 30 spaces in the Sacramento area. That includes The Lambda Players, which recently staged Burlingame's new play, Paper Clip Messiah. Look at the Sacramento Bee and you'll find a list of 25 shows currently on the boards, among them Arcadia, Endgame, and Exit the King. Pretty heady stuff.

Nevertheless, I headed to nearby Rancho Cordova, where Garbeau's Dinner Theatre was offering Forever Plaid. Of course, you might ask why. Well, I was meeting some friends and they had a free coupon that they had to use by November 30. Sure, I'd seen the show seven times, but only the original Off-Broadway production got it right. Perhaps the Sacramento cast would figure out the key to doing the show successfully.

You see, the Plaids are four kids who never achieved much during their so-called singing career in the '50s. That's partly because they were cheap knockoffs of such pre-rock groups as the Four Aces, Lads, and Freshmen, and partly because they came at the tail-end of the soft 'n' easy musical style that the Beatles forever obliterated. It's no coincidence that conceiver Stuart Ross had the Plaids killed in a car accident on the same night that the Beatles made their debut on American TV.

As the musical begins, the Plaids are aware that they never accomplished anything and wouldn't have even if they had lived. Now that they've been brought back to life to perform, they put on a brave face but, way down deep, they don't much believe in themselves. Still, they've never entertained modern-day audiences who have endured much woeful, post-1964 music. So when the crowd hears the mellow sounds of "Moments to Remember" and "Heart and Soul," they appreciate the warm, nostalgic sounds and applaud loudly.

Hence, the key to any Forever Plaid production: During that applause, the boys must look at each other with wide-eyed amazement to convey what they're thinking: Can you believe how much these people love us? Because of that positive reinforcement, they begin to believe in themselves, get better and better, and wind up triumphant. The message is a lovely one: If you encourage people, they do better. The production at Garbeau's didn't get that at all. And how were the four lads who played the quartet? Not bad at all. (Well, if I encourage them, maybe they'll do better.)

Then it was on to Sacramento itself. There's no theater district here, which was proved by my seeing shows on B Street, H Street, and R Street. The last-named location has seen quite a bit of traffic, for the musical revue Six Women with Brain Death has just started its eighth year there. I wanted to see what would make Sacramentians take to it so. There are nine women in the Six Women cast and they rotate, each playing various performances. But this night, while one woman was dressed in yellow, one in green, another in blue and another in purple, two were in red -- suggesting that there had been some confusion as to who would be on for this performance.

All came out carrying a copy of that week's National Enquirer: "Matt Lauer's Cocaine Dealer Tells All," screamed the headline. Much of the evening involved topical humor. The show has clearly been revamped since it opened, for there are references to Viagra and Martha Stewart's legal problems -- unknown quantities when Six Women began its merry run in October 1996. Strangely enough, a sketch about butch movies made mention of "Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Segal" -- with no reference to what the middle man has been doing lately.

The show asked, "So who invented flavored douches, anyway?" and "Who's worse, Jenny Jones or Jerry Springer?" It contained such observations as "Men have names for their penises because they don't want strangers telling them what to do," "My kids have too many drugs and I don't have enough," and "I know my son isn't gay because he doesn't like Sondheim." The closest thing songwriter Mark Houston came to writing a deft lyric was in a song called "God Is an Alien": "God is not from Galilee, but a galaxy." And yet, in a scene where the six women sat and reminisced about their youth and their Barbie dolls, they showed a terrific camaraderie that gave the evening a glow and almost made it bearable.

Okay, let's get little more rarefied. I attended Tom Stoppard's Arcadia as presented by the Sacramento Theater Company. Here were the first Equity performers I encountered on my trip -- seven out of the 12 in the cast. Still, I felt as if I were watching a college production; a good college production, to be sure, but almost everyone was as callow in his role as John Stamos is as Guido in Broadway's Nine. Yet the least professional person on board was the lighting designer, who didn't illuminate the actors' faces well enough. As my buddy Jim Lockwood has correctly noted, "Theatergoers rely on lip reading more than they realize." Stoppard is dense enough that an audience needs every advantage it can get. Both the woman to my left and the man to my right fell asleep after 10 minutes of Arcadia; they occasionally awoke and tried to get back into it but soon gave up. Arcadia is not a play that allows you to drift in and out.

The Drawer Boy
The Drawer Boy
So, is the Sacramento theater scene entirely hopeless? Of course not. There is the B Street Theatre, a 178-seat three-quarter thrust venue that Tim (thirtysomething) Busfield started it in 1992 with his brother Buck, who now runs the place. Buck Busfield traffics in unconventional, ambitious fare and is now deciding on next season's offerings, which may include Charles L. Mee's Big Love, Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice, Nicky Silver's The Altruist, and/or Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicings.

The B Street Theatre lobby includes a bar, a popcorn machine, and little bowls of pretzels strategically placed so that anyone can grab a handful when he wants. The walls are dotted with ceramic stars with the names of donors as well as a quilt that features four stars on it -- "because," quilter Susan Meyers states in a note situated to the left, "every show I see at B Street is a four-star show."

Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I was intrigued by The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey. It tells of Miles, a Canadian actor who, in 1972, is about to begin creating a play about farm life with a bunch of other actors. So he goes to a farm in the provinces, meets Angus there, and asks if he can watch him work so he can be accurate in his depiction. Angus doesn't say much because, as it turns out, he's developmentally disabled. Miles has a bit more luck with Morgan, who lives with Angus and who agrees to let Miles stay on if he pitches in.

Miles screws up fast with a tractor and even injures Morgan. The actor assumes that Morgan will now say "forget it," but that doesn't happen. Morgan is dead serious about having Miles help but what Miles does next doesn't help anyone at all. He learns about Angus's history: He was injured in the war and had a plate put in his head. This has made Morgan his caretaker but it also means that Morgan is the omnipotent boss in all matters. By the time Miles finishes his visit, things won't ever be the same again. There are a couple of reversals that are both surprising and satisfying.

Jerry Montoya's production was wonderfully nuanced and Owen Murphy was a wonderfully no-nonsense Morgan. Warren Sweeney, in the tougher role of Angus, showed the pain of a man trying so desperately to figure out the mundane things that happen each day. Whenever I watch an actor portraying a developmentally disabled person, I always look forward to seeing him at the curtain calls, during which his eyes will blaze with intelligence and we'll see who he really is. Sweeney didn't disappoint me, but young Craig Watkinson deserves a good deal of respect for playing Miles with such charm and guilelessness. He also had to deliver one of the toughest lines of the season: "I'm an actor. We don't have politics." Imagine saying that in Sacramento with a straight face these days!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]