Encore Michigan

The actors rock “Birthday Club” at Meadow Brook

Review January 30, 2023 David Kiley

ROCHESTER HILLS, MI–When I see a play about five women, and the dialogue doesn’t ring true to me, I start perusing the program to read about the playwright. “Aha! That’s why. “It was written by a man.

Not that men can’t ever write dialogue and women characters. But few have the right knack.

That is the situation with Birthday Club, now being presented by The Meadow Brook here. It’s meant to be funny, but with streaks of pathos and hug-time among the women. The fact that this group of five lost a member of the club to cancer, and two go through husbands asking for divorces, is meant to infuse the otherwise sit-com banter with a dose of real life. Not so much.

Directed ably by Travis Walter, the cast is wonderful. The acting as good as it can be given the limitations of the script. The set, by Brian Kessler, is gorgeous. Indeed, The Meadow Brook is known widely for getting great actors and delivering some of the best scenic designs in the region. Costume design is by Marley Boone. Lighting design is by Phillip Hall. Sound design is by Mike Duncan. The production is technically exceptional in every aspect.

But for me, the talent and stagecraft is squandered on a script by a playwright known for scripts that should be more the stuff of community and church-basement theatre than professional ones. Playwright Phil Olson is primarily known for vapid sitcom-style riffs on a theme he revisits again and again: A series of tortured “stories” around the same idea–“Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family;” Don’t Hug Me,” “Don’t Hug me Christmas Carol,” “Don’t Hug Me Country Fair,” “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Pregnant,” “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married.” You get the idea. Cue the vomit emoji.

The synopsis of Birthday Club: Five women get together for their birthdays, each with their own story, to drink, celebrate, commiserate, and support each other as they negotiate through marriage, work, divorce, birth, kids and solve the problems of the world.

Their departed friend is replaced by Sarah (Sara Kmiec), a woman who works in Cheryl’s (Lynnae Lehfeldt) accounting firm. She is “Nemish”, which apparently is a play on “Amish,” and created as to not offend actual Amish people? The story hops the rails here pretty fast as this woman, who first appears before us in an Amish smock/frock, would never be working in the accounting firm, nor would she be at this party. Suspend the truth for the sake of the story? No. The first basic lesson of comedy is that it has to be plausible/true to be funny.

Much yuk-yuk is made of Sarah’s virginity, abstention of alcohol, fiancée named Mordecai. Kathy (Dani Cochrane) is the rough around the edges Mother who is pregnant again, and somewhat indifferent as she drinks alcohol during the story. Abbie (Tamara PiLar) is a stay-at-home wife, married to a wealthy provider. No kids. Emily (Debbie Williams), is the Tinder-addicted over-sexed, botox-addicted Milf of the group. Cheryl hosts all of the birthday gatherings in her house. She is an alpha- female who has her own accounting firm, and a stay-at-home husband working on an unpublished novel about a husband who murders and over-bearing wife. Tee-hee. Wink wink.

Jokes about drinking while pregnant, giving Sarah a glass of vodka with fruit-juice in it, and telling the alcohol-virgin its special water…is both unfunny and a weird point-of-view about what funny is. A man’s point-of-view about how women are and talk when they get together to share life’s troubles and triumphs? “Hug me. I’m stuck in a bad script.”

While the actresses saddled with these stereotypes do yeoman work on stage trying to elevate what they surely know is a man’s whiskey-conjured version of how women actually talk to one another, the intentional giggles come from a few decent sit-com devices and lines, and the unintentional ones come from the preposterous way all the conflicts get resolved at the end. Ms. Cochrane in particular is exceptional with her comedic timing.

I can’t stress enough how good the actors are in this production. But it reminds me of one of those cooking shows where they give chefs a basket of unrelated ingredients–sardines, bubblegum, peanut butter, popcorn and lamb kidneys, and their challenge is to make a restaurant-quality entrée.

There are laughs from the audience, so my opinion on the writing may well be in the minority. Lots of playwrights make a good living writing the literary equivalent of Hallmark Mother’s Day cards. A trip to the theatre can be escapism for many patrons. But I still want the writing to be smart and authentic to the characters even when I want to escape the day’s or the week’s travails.

Week of 7/15/2024

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