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By Robert Bethune
Moonshine Alley by Peter Campbell, a world premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre, is a rather charming and sometimes witty play about a couple of comfortably pleasing eccentrics who live on the streets. The play holds our attention, which is not easy: It has little dramatic tension, apparently by design. It is an exploration of the hearts of two quite interesting people. However, it fails its ostensible subject matter.
The play is an escapist comedy, not a social one. It means to speak about homelessness, police brutality and soulless bureaucracy in a spiritually dead society, but actually it only briefly mentions such things, then it turns back to the prettifying stereotypes built into the two main characters. It needs to sting us while it makes us laugh. Instead, it lets us sit back, relax, smile and commiserate about these lovable, eccentric homeless people, who so clearly are not victims of the lethal combination of mental illness, substance abuse and societal indifference that could be approached through humor very different from what this play chooses to offer.
The production is very enjoyable. The play is built around two older folks. Ava Adelman is a woman who fled from her 19 years as the wife of a sadistic, money-grubbing dentist, who prefers homelessness to New Jersey suburbia. Charlotte Leisinger plays her with good-hearted earthiness and much subtle physical humor. Sir Farquar Buzzard (Hank Bennett) is apparently a posh and eccentric upper-class Englishman fallen on hard times, or so he would have us believe. He is actually someone else, but we never find out who, which is one of the major weak points in the play. Ava is a woman who never knew art, culture or travel, but she did love someone very deeply, a young man who died a soldier in Vietnam. Buzzard is a man who loved art, culture and travel very much, who never mentions loving anybody.
They face a threat in the form of Peggy Dinsmore, a Social Services bureaucrat who wants Ava and Buzzard off the streets and into a shelter pronto, and is not above using strong-arm tactics to get her way. Patsy Hudson humanizes the character, who is pretty much a cardboard cutout.
There is a fourth character, James Webb, a homeless former boxer whose career consisted of one fight. Harold Hogan plays the part in an offhand, casual, friendly way that suits it well and effectively covers up the fact that the character's presence in the play is purely for the dramatist's convenience. There is another character, truly fascinating, The Beingness, who does not speak and is never seen, who lives in the fourth cardboard box. Campbell loses track of him, her or it, which is too bad.
The set design by Harry Wetzel is definitely a cut above average, which carves the space into a brutally walled-in corner between city monoliths and covers it with a gritty urban texture. It is subtly and effectively lit by Thomas Schraeder. Judy Dery's costumes feed the characters very well, but we wonder: How does Buzzard stay so clean? And how does homelessness pull off the same trick?
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Through June 22. Tickets: $17-$20. For information: 313-868-1347 or www.detroitreptheatre.com.
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