The costumed characters at Disney, the historical characters that lead museum tours, and the guy sloshing mead at a Renaissance faire have one thing in common: Chances are, they are all actors. Actors hoping for more rewarding work than telling you where the nearest restroom is.
Such is the world inhabited by playwright Brian Hampton's colorful zoo of characters in the Studio Players' regional premiere of The Jungle Fun Room.
An assortment of five actors at various stages of their relationship to theater toil at their "day jobs" at a New York City zoo while auditioning and rehearsing in their spare time. They're always hoping for that big break that will deliver them from the Jungle Fun Room, a cinder-block room at the zoo that is, for them, backstage, supply closet, green room, occasional bar and unisex dressing room all in one.
Director Bob Singleton calls the production a "love letter to the theater," and it's easy to see that the actors are fully on board with his vision, a colorful exploration of the hilarious and sad foibles that actors encounter on a regular basis.
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The industry insider, comedic elements of the play — including standout performances by Allie Darden and Alex Maddox — are snappy, entertaining and appealing even to those who aren't employed by a theater.
However, the overall groove of the show feels uneven at times, losing momentum during the more serious scenes that move the plot forward and picking up again when the comedy returns.
It's a shame that the comedy is more ornament than architecture for the script's plot devices. The comedy is really where this play wants to soar — and it often does, but not before getting bogged down by questionable character development that prevents the heavier elements of the plot from resolving themselves.
The most clearly defined characters — and, consequently, the comedy pay dirt of the show — are fame-lusting, show-business junkies Shelly and Trevor. Not unlike their characters, Darden and Maddox compete to steal the show.
Darden is at her comedic best in a career-defining performance. The over-enunciated T's and trilled R's and the ridiculous commitment to protecting her "instrument" as she does vocal warm-ups for her role of Captain Mammal are pure hysterics. Maddox is on her heels as a zoo newbie who threatens her with his talent.
Hampton and Singleton seem to want to do more than shed light on the hilarious backstage antics of entertainment. They appear to want to make an artistic statement about what it's really all about — ordinary people chasing extraordinary dreams, and that doing the work with integrity is what is important. I really wanted to be on board, but I was not convinced that any of these characters embody that sentiment.
The closest is Eve, Jennifer L. Workman's refreshingly grounded character, who thinks dressing up as a turtle is a "good job" and is constantly working in small but pertinent productions in her off time. In her final speech, though, she is more dismissive of herself than illuminated. She wants to avoid the hubbub of Broadway and the theatrical rat race because there's just too much "drama" to deal with. I'd hoped for a more sophisticatedly articulated message from her.
In the end, I was left with lots of echoing laughter and plenty of comedy-charged fun, but I also was left wondering whether any of the characters really know what art is or if they are all lost to the machine of show business. Perhaps that is the point.