By Bill Hirschman
Of course, theater has gone far beyond when audiences expected (or were satisfied with) just a drama or a comedy or thriller or think piece or some other category, with “or” being a controlling part of the definition.
Cemetery Pub, a play in its second production by playwright-actor Tom Dugan at Pigs Do Fly Productions, is a mash-up of multiple genres as three relatives hash out troubled pasts and an uncertain future in a blue collar New Jersey bar.
Each of these approaches separately achieves what Dugan, director Deborah Kondelik and this earnest trio of cast members seek: chuckling laughs, considerable relationship drama, a shadow of impending peril, jabs at the generation gap, and a look at how the past creates who we are today.
But what dogs this production is that the pieces never quite fit together as if they don’t belong in the same play, even though such disparate elements certainly have melded and played off each other in other efforts. Further, none of them firmly establish themselves as the dominant thrust for the entire evening. Perhaps it’s my shortcoming, but I’m not sure I can really tell you precisely what Dugan was trying to say overall.
And yet, be assured, all these skilled artists together create an engaging quality that produces an entertaining evening. They make you care about these characters and how their evening will end.
It’s late in 2000 when we meet the genial avuncular 50-something Ken behind the bar at O’Brien’s Tavern, nicknamed The Cemetery Pub for St. Gertrude’s Catholic Cemetery across the street. It’s a classic rundown haven serving the neighborhood for three generations, complete with dart board and a record player because the owner didn’t want a Mob-leased jukebox. Offstage at the moment in the kitchen is his niece, the beautiful young 20-something bar owner Dixie.
Enter Dan, a graying, slightly grizzled second-cousin of Ken’s who no one has seen in many years and is considered the black sheep of the family. Invited by Ken, Dan is willing to consider being hired to help out Dixie whose mother died and is running the operation by herself.
But Dixie has a tough streetwise exterior formed from living in a very rough and tumble world. Her neanderthal boyfriend Choo Choo literally nailed her hand to the bar. She asks Ken about hiring Dan, “Why should I give him a break? Nobody has ever given me a break.”
The proximity of the cemetery echoes the theme of death running through the evening: The women in Dixie’s family have a history of fatal breast cancer giving them a sense of a tickling clock, Ken is frequently involved with funerals, Choo Choo is likely homicidal, and Dan, who just buried his wife, has even more of an intimate connection with death.
But one of several reasons Dan doesn’t leave when this relationship doesn’t quite gel is the fact that Dixie is a dead ringer for her mother – with whom Dan had a profound love affair perhaps 30 years earlier.
That revelation is just one of a dozen surprise turns, even one early on simply when Ken takes off his coat. Everyone has a borderline improbable accumulation of secrets after secrets after secrets after secrets that come out. You can argue that some of the specific surprises strain credulity a trifle. You go with all of it because, hey, this is theater not real life.
In fact, the one secret you fully expect coming the whole night turns out not to be true (unless someone is lying and there is one passing clue about color blindness that someone hasn’t told the truth).
It’s difficult to reveal much more without spoiling the disclosures and confessions, but the three swirl around liberally liquor-lubricated with pointed repartee and retorts as something unspoken is closing in.
That last is a source of a problem: Other than a bit of tension in the room and a couple of vague fleeting lines, it’s about an hour into the 90-minute play before we are clearly given the reason for both this reunion and what is driving the play’s narrative, which we won’t spoil here.
Kondelik has smoothly paced an evening of spiky relationships and melancholy memories. She also developed perfect costumes such as Dan’s worn garb reflecting a rugged life and giving both men the kind of outerwear appropriate for a cold Jersey winter.
Todd Bruno, who has appeared in the region often, invests Dan with a sense of being battered by the cruel realities of life to the point of emotional and psychic exhaustion. It’s undeniable that he doesn’t have the hulking physicality you’d expect for someone in Dan’s business and he’s about ten years too young for the part. So give Bruno the earned credit that the actor makes you believe he is Dan.
Veteran Dave Corey fully meets the tough challenge in making the complex Ken, a caring humanist who is complicated to put it mildly as various layers are revealed.
Caroline Dopson succeeds in creating a Dixie who starts off with as rhino tough exterior but credibly exposes a vulnerable interior.
Everyone starts out with an array of convincing Jersey accents although that doesn’t last the entire play.
Dugan is an experienced hand. Besides an acting career, he has written four one-man plays with the most well-known Wiesenthal. This is his first with multiple actors. Their conversation is credible, punctuated with appropriate obscenities and sexual references.
Dixie and Dugan share a wry street-sharpened wit:
DIXIE: “I don’t hate men. I just think there are higher forms of life.”
DAN: Like what?
The generation gap is underscored repeatedly as Dan used words in conversation with Dixie that she doesn’t recognize. He references Joan Jett and she is clueless. Or he says:
DAN: Moxie. Pluck.
DIXIE: (Getting it) Balls.
A bow is due Ardean Landhuis’s bar you may recognize from your own pub crawls, David Hart’s recorded passing trains echoed by the real train across the street from the theater, and Preston Bircher’s lighting.
Some tinkering with the script might benefit, but there is promise here worth an audience’s ticket.
Cemetery Pub from Pigs Do Fly Productions runs through March 19 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale (two blocks north of Sunrise, east of railroad tracks); at 8 p.m. Friday – Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $39. For tickets: www.pigsdoflyproductions.com