April 4 2012 12:00 AM

Love, liquor — and video games? — are blended in unusual 'Usual'


The title of Williamston Theatre’s latest production, “The Usual,” is entirely misleading.  It is anything but usual. In fact, it is unusual to the extent that it may polarize audiences. It is also one of the most offbeat shows of the season.

The full title of the play is “The Usual: A Musical Love Story.” Williamston’s run of the show is the world premiere of the original work, with book and lyrics by Alan Gordon and music by Mark Sutton-Smith. If that last name sounds familiar, it is because he is the brother of “The Usual” cast member and Williamston Theatre Development Director Emily Sutton-Smith.

“The Usual” follows the usual conventions of a love story: Boy and girl meet cute but face internal and external obstacles before achieving their happily-ever-after ending.  The dark turn that the story takes at the end of Act One marks its journey into the unusual.

The play begins as computer nerd Kip (Joseph Zettelmaier) reconnoiters Sam’s Bar as a possible hangout for his geek squad. As proprieter Sam (Leslie Hull) schools Kip on the customs of imbibing, Valerie (Sutton-Smith) crashes in, hiding from a bad Internet date. Learning that she is a serial Internet dater, Kip forges a pact with Valerie to meet at Sam’s after every date to debrief.

At first this plan works out nicely, and the two exchange tales of past relationship disasters. These stories offer Hull the opportunity to stretch from her barmaid duties, playing a manic reality television show hopeful and an Internet fantasy girl. The latter also affords scenic designer Daniel C. Walker the opportunity to surprise the audience with an unexpected scenic element.

Act One ends on an unexpectedly serious note as Valerie experiences the ugly side of Internet dating, causing her to retreat from the world. This is when things get really, really unusual.

Act Two focuses on Valerie’s rather unique form of therapy, as she rediscovers her first video game. It´s at this point that some audience members may lose their connection to the play, as it incorporates the use of 1980s-style role-playing games as a metaphor for Valerie’s struggle. Unlike today’s role-playing games, with their fancy-pants, life-like color graphics and slick animation, back in the day RPGs were played using simple text directions and blobby, chunky characters that came in green or amber, depending on the color of the computer’s glowing cathode-ray tube screen.

Costume designer Holly Iler does a fantastic job recreating the look of such characters, aided by Lynn Lammer’s pixelated props. As Valerie commands her character, typing furiously on her “Kebpro II” computer (to which an entire song is devoted), her Valkyrie avatar does furious battle, the hilariously low-tech special effects brought to life by the Dancing Crew: Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex.  

Director Tony Caselli chose his cast well. Zettelmaier is absolutely perfect as the schlubby but huggable Kip, and while his voice isn’t the most refined, it suits his character. Sutton-Smith moves seamlessly from confident cruiser to computer-obsessed shut-in, her voice strongest when she lets it all out. Hull has a blast with her side characters, lending an earnest charm as the matchmaking bartender. And she has pipes powerful enough to drown out a Harley.

While the end may tie up just a wee bit too neatly, it is not a spoiler to reveal that. After all, it is called a musical love story. Still, the unusual aspects of the “The Usual” set it apart from similar stories. It may not be everyone’s game, but those of a certain age will revel in its quirkiness.  

‘The Usual: A Musical Love Story’

Now through April 22

Williamston Theatre

122 S. Putnam St., Williamston

8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$20 Thursdays; $25 Fridays and Saturday evenings; $22 Saturday matinees and Sundays; $10 students with ID; $2 off any show for seniors 65 and over

(517) 655-7469