‘Diva Royale’ at Purple Rose follows suburban Moms to the Big Apple
CHELSEA, Mich.–Jeff Daniels’ latest play, Diva Royale, follows three Midwest suburban housewives and mothers obsessed with the movie “Titanic” on a trip to New York City to see Celine Dion on concert.
The story opens with lots of comic possibilities, but somewhere along the way Mr. Daniels seems to have forgotten to give us a compelling reason to be watching these women other than observing some excellent physical comedy performed by terrific actors.
The story is told by the three women, and we are let in at the beginning of the story on the fact that they had a run-in with the law and danger on their trip. And as the women tell us what happened in the past tense, they act out the scenes. We feel like maybe we are their kids or their friends back home being regaled with the details of the trip.
Helen Millerbee (Rhiannon Ragland), Mary Catherine Carlton (Kristin Shields) Lynette Taylor-Tyler (Kate Thomsen) are professional Moms, having forged their relationship on the drop-off and pick-up line at their kids’ school. And their obsession with “Titanic”, the focus of a bunch of the comedy, makes them seem at times a little unhinged, though in a safe suburban way. Lynette has seen the movie more than 800 times.
Part of the problem with Diva Royale is the jokes run too long and deep, and repeat. Early, the three do a make-shift ballet of “Titanic” choreography to the theme song, right down to the iconic scene of Rose and Jack at the bow of the ship. The song runs four-and-a-half minutes, but it seems longer when you are trying to make it funny. The scene is saved by Rusty Mewha, who comes on the stage with a Titanic movie poster and begins vigorously fanning the ladies with it to create the impression of wind. It’s a funny bit.
As the ladies hit the Big Apple, all their Midwestern sensibilities and naivete come out. Mary Catherine has heard that New York is the most expensive city in the world, so she packs a ham to make sandwiches while in the city. Unfortunately, the maple glaze leaks all over her Celine Dion-replica dress, and we see her wearing it anyway, looking like she was the victim of a mob hit and smelling of pancakes. Lynette has an addiction to her smartphone. And when a passer-by man (Mewha) agrees to take the ladies’ picture with her phone, he then makes off with it, sending Lynette into withdrawal spasms complete with fetal position.
It is at this point that the play tries to assemble a plot in which Mewha’s thief calls on of the others (her number was in Lynette’s “recent call” folder) and offers to return it for $500. This is where the ladies’ adventure turns into a caper as they try to thwart the thief without paying the ransom.
The other gag in the show relates to the Celine Dion experience, but I’ll leave details of that to the patron to find out to avoid a spoiler.
The cast is excellent as is always the case at The Purple Rose. Mewha nearly steals the show, appearing as a nightclub singer, Indian Uber driver, Jewish businessman and thief. He does each turn with perfect timing. Some of these characters skate perilously close to being un-PC stereotypes, but have been dialed back just enough and, in fact, are positioned as heroes in the story.
Director Guy Sanville clearly applied his rule of “Go faster” because the story clips along as fast as it can, which helps push out the comedy and avoids the thin storyline from drifting into a highway shoulder.
The problem here is a lack of real arc in the story, which every play–comedy or drama–needs. It has a bit of the feel of The Out of Towners, but without the characters we care about in that story, or the resolution at the end. This feels more like extended sketch comedy.
All the burners are on in Diva Royale. It’s the material, the script, that doesn’t allow us to care much about these women other than laughing them, and isn’t quite serving the efforts and talent of the cast and production team.