There's no doubt that La Bodega Productions aims to make some serious waves in their first season. The ambitious new company is three-quarters through a blitzkrieg of Portland theater: four plays in four months, in an ambitious back-to-back run that's impressive in scope, but nonetheless raises some inevitable questions about quantity and quality. While I missed their first show, I was impressed by Wit, their second: It was challenging and heartfelt, and featured some fantastic acting. In Wit's case, both La Bodega's choice of material and their execution bode well for future productions.
Unfortunately, Looking for Olivia seriously killed my Bodega buzz. There's only one problem with this production, but it's a doozy: The script is awful.
According to La Bodega's website, the script for Olivia was inspired (and I use that term broadly) by the "American romantic comedy" and the "English farce." It aspires, in short, to be a Neil Simon play: a glib comedy of manners and mishaps that sheds some circumspect light on the human condition. Unfortunately, it fails on all of these counts, plus a few more. Olivia, by local playwright Steve Coker (who also directed La Bodega's production), was recently nominated for "Best Play" at the Welsh Swansea Bay Film Festival, so presumably someone, somewhere, must've liked it—but from where I sat last Saturday, it was hard to see why.
Olivia follows the misadventures of Henry (Paul Angelo), a screenwriter with writer's block and a bitchy girlfriend. One night when his girlfriend is out of town, Henry opens the door to his apartment to find that his foxy neighbor, Olivia (Summer Dawn Arnett), has just had a fight with her boyfriend and is now locked out of her place. Demonstrating a remarkable lack of common sense, Olivia agrees to stay at Henry's place until the superintendent (conveniently away for the weekend) returns to unlock her apartment.
Here, Olivia's overburdened plot mechanism really begins to strain. Olivia explains to Henry that her parents are coming to visit, and that for reasons too complicated and improbable to detail here, she has lied and told them that she is married. Henry decides that it will help him overcome his writer's block if he can turn Olivia's story into a "real-life drama." He plans a scenario in which his best friend David (Rocco George), a struggling actor, pretends to be Olivia's husband.
If now sounds like a good time for a "twist," don't worry, it's coming: Olivia's parents arrive a day early for their visit, catching Olivia and Henry by surprise. Henry finds himself pretending to be married to Olivia, and it becomes obvious that the two have real feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Tia (Marcella Laasch), Henry's girlfriend, comes back from her vacation a day early, catching Henry and Olivia in bed together. Of course, it all works out in the end: Henry confesses his love for Olivia, David confesses his love for Tia, Olivia's divorced parents get back together, and no one goes home alone.
The fact that the Henry is a scriptwriter only serves to draw attention to the script's many flaws. The dialogue is stilted and precious: No one has ever talked like this, ever. The plot includes utterly nonsensical elements that never culminate in any worthwhile comedic payoff. It feels unsporting to pick on actors for their performances in this piece: No matter what stops the cast and crew pull out, they are still fundamentally limited by the writing. The set looks good, though, and some of the musical choices came as a pleasant surprise. As for the cast: Paul Angelo is relatively likeable as Henry, while Summer Dawn Arnett seems to have been cast for her easy, genuine laugh and the fact that she looks hot in a slip. The two have enough chemistry to make scenes between the two of them almost fun to watch, especially during the dialogue-free make-out scenes.
At the risk of sounding like a cretin: If I want a romantic comedy, I will turn on my television. If I want an English-style farce, well... I pretty much don't. Productions as clueless as this one only inspire pity, and a sensation that theater really has been reduced to a quaint and outmoded novelty act. I'm still looking forward to La Bodega's next few shows, especially Cannibal: The Musical, opening this winter. I have a feeling that Trey Parker's musical will feel a lot more relevant than some hackneyed, self-referential nonsense about a too-clever scriptwriter trying to get laid.