Aug. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Veteran actor, newcomers deliver in quirky comedy

The play begins with a stage direction. Hold it right there. “Bluff,” now playing at BoarsHead Theater, opens with characters marching onto the stage, describing their movements, announcing their intentions, letting the audience in on what is unspoken by speaking it aloud in a subway-rush of cascading emotions. The fourth wall between actors on stage and audience is almost entirely eliminated, prompting mini-orgasms of shocked laughter from audience members delighted at the unconventionality of the play. It is smart, it is witty, and it is clever, crisp and very New York-y. There are oblique party-like conversations that initially seem pointless and about nothing at all, and then, suddenly, the play morphs into a complex tale about the generational struggle between a 30-something daughter and the mother from whom she is estranged, and then the effect this has on a developing relationship between two young lovers.

The characters in this play, and the actors who portray them, are fast-talking — sometimes breathless, as they hurl out lines at a Manhattan pace. What first seems to be an ensemble piece develops into a star-turn for veteran TV, film and stage actor John Astin, whose portrayal of dentist-stepfather Gene is energetic and full of surprises. His soliloquy as to what might be the most articulate, positive alternative saying to “a worthless piece of shit” is a hilarious bit of comic theater that truly breaks the audience up.

Prentiss Benjamin, as stepdaughter Emily, and Max Shulman, as her live-in lover, Neal, make a matched pair of contemporary urban bookends, clearly in love but guarded against admitting it unconditionally to one another. Floating in and out of the central dynamics of this play — the inter-fearing interfacings of Gene with Emily and Neal — are Linda Setzer, as Emily’s borderline alcoholic mother, and Anthony Blaha and Julie Sihilling — each in two minor featured roles portrayed with unpredictability and oddball humor. Setzer, costumed exquisitely for the role of the stiff-backboned drunk, is the perfect ‘50s-era, overly controlled, slightly weaving souse. Sihilling milks the audience to great effect and ample applause, as she steps out of character to explain how she could have had a larger role, how the theater company could have saved money by casting her as the alcoholic mother as well. Blaha scores points (and laughs) with multiple deadpan looks and long silences.

“Bluff is full of audience asides, each one setting up a scene, and moves along at the speed of a text message. Actors are so finely tuned one to another that lines overlap seamlessly.

Astin, in particular, seems to hold court on stage, the veteran showing the newcomers how live theater is supposed to be done. Responding for all they are worth, the newcomers create something that will touch people deeply.

At the core of this play is the question of how young adults separate from their parents, only to be called back as their parents age, put some dreams on hold and attend to those who attended to us. Unresolved issues surface and are worked through, or not.
“Bluff” calls. And we respond.


July 26 7 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2
p.m. Sunday BoarsHead Theater 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing $12-$30 (517)
484-7805 www.boarshead.org

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