Workplace shenanigans make for entertaining theater. Protesting pajama-gamers; ladder-climbing window washers; even a group of ladies working the monotonous 9-to-5 grind keep us riveted. True, all of these folks had a score of catchy tunes to keep their audiences happy — one amenity that Craving for Travel does not pack in its bottomless suitcase of zany characters and thick accents. But not even the great Frank Loesser could turn this trite two-hander into a compelling comic profile of the travel industry.
Lead producer Jim Strong, who also happens to be one of America’s leading luxury travel consultants and president of Strong Travel Services in Dallas, Texas, inspired his beloved profession’s venture into the theatrical world. The globe-trotting expert commissioned director/playwright Andy Sandberg (The Last Smoker in America) who then enlisted the help of his computer-programming college classmate Greg Edwards, to write a piece about the myriad of wacky situations and personalities that pass through a travel agency. The finished product, now making its world premiere at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, is a two-person game of travel-agent ping-pong, played by equally matched talents Michele Ragusa and Thom Sesma.
At the story’s core, Ragusa and Sesma play Joanne and Gary, a pair of competing travel agents and amiable ex-spouses who, since Gary tumbled out of the closet, have taken up a Will-&-Grace rapport. The two chat on the phone from their sleek offices (positioned side by side like an onstage split screen by set designer Charlie Corcoran) and, in the spirit of friendly competition, wager an Arctic vacation as they vie for the coveted Globel Award (a fictional accolade as far as my research shows). After their initial introductions, phone lines start blazing and we’re off on a trip around the world of needy clients, smug colleagues, and flamboyant receptionists.
Ragusa and Sesma take on a different caricatured persona with each rapid-fire phone call. Though the two actors achieve impressive shape-shifting feats, the vaudevillian act is not nearly strong enough to carry the weight of an entire play — even the breezy 75-minute package that Sandberg and Edwards have compiled. An unrelenting flood of new characters swirl around the stage in a confusing frenzy until finally the eye of the storm comes into focus. As we reach the end of the conveyor belt, characters begin to make their second and third appearances, forming their own unique plot threads that get tied up with neat ribbons. Plots vary from the absurd (one client requests to take The Intrepid for a spin around Manhattan) to the poignant (an elderly woman plans a romantic vacation for her 60th anniversary), though none of these have quite the punch Sandberg and Edwards are hoping to achieve.
It’s clear that the two writers, in their exploration of this theatrically underrepresented profession, have heard both sidesplitting and tear-jerking behind-the-scenes tales of life in the travel business that inspired this kitchen sink of a play. While their ability to coherently construct this million-piece puzzle in under an hour and a half is logistically impressive, neither of these emotional extremes effectively translates to the stage. The balancing act of plot leaves no room for authentic characters to emerge from our central protagonists, and the crumbs of personal story line the two are given (Joanne is thrown a love interest and Gary, like a good gay son, makes strides in his relationship with his hovering mother) seem like afterthoughts in this dizzying whirlwind. Let’s just say, if these storylines are inspired by true events, they’re best suited for an audience of fellow travel agents at the Globel Awards after-party.