| Leslie Inmon and Zero Feeney|
Photo by Alicia Turvin
North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company can usually be relied on to surprise me with its eccentric offerings, but the opening moments of their current show, Rx, left me a little nervous. I was not expecting the lights to go up on an otherwise pretty woman in a pretty dreadful blonde wig, baring her midriff like Daisy Mae Yokum while bravely attempting to sing Dolly Parton’s classic “9 to 5.” However, the inexplicably awkward intro was quickly followed by an amazingly funny, smartly written satire performed by a fine cast who simply litter the stage with brilliant moments. Author Kate Fodor, mining the world of pharmaceutical development and sales, uncovers a mother lode of both comedy and social commentary. Co-directors Jo Strom Lane and Samuel Ruble have assembled a cast able to adroitly work with some very sharp comedy, warm us with a bit of gentle romance, and use both to deliver the show’s message.
The premise is easy to relate to – at least, all of us who have ever been unhappy with our jobs. What if workplace discontent were not a necessary fact of life, or possibly a sign of an intractably bad attitude? What if it were, instead, a diagnosable form of depression that could be treated with a little pill? In Rx, the hard working researchers and merciless marketing execs at Schmidt Pharmaceuticals are testing just such a drug, cleverly named SP 925 (“nine to five” – get it?). Meena Pierotti, managing editor in the piggeries division of American Cattle and Swine Magazine, is a test subject in the SP 925 drug trial, under the care of researcher Dr. Phil Gray. Meena copes with her workplace malaise by regularly indulging in crying jags in the old ladies’ underwear department at the Bon-Ton Department Store. Drawn together by their mutual misery (Meena is at heart a talented poet, Phil wants to save third-world lives as part of the Flying Physicians program) the ingredients are there for a beautiful relationship – until, of course, problems arise. Beneath the extraordinarily droll and witty dialogue, Fodor tells a story about the importance of human relationships, risk, and the dangers of turning too quickly to pharmaceuticals to pave over dilemmas that are necessary components of the human condition.
While there are some fun cameos, the show really belongs to three actors: Leslie Inmon (“Meena”), Zero Feeney (“Phil”), and Jayne Furlong (“Allison,” the passionately cutthroat marketing director). Inmon’s direct, in-your-face style gives Meena’s confused persona an interesting twist – even when she’s at her lowest, she’s never whiny or weak, and there’s an undertone of lovable optimism that she just can’t shake. “Phil” may be the logical scientist, but Feeney gives his character a consistently awkward and loveable sensitivity that quickly endears him to the audience (if not, initially, to Meena). The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, but not sexual – it’s more like they are lost and each finds salvation and understanding, rather than passion, from the other. Jayne Furlong ‘s “Allison” is perhaps the most fun role, but it presents a special challenge. Allison is 100% parody, and Furlong delivers the broadest satire – her enthusiasm for marketing runs the gamut from perkily gung-ho to positively orgasmic. Her timing and inflection are marvelous, but the real strength of her performance is that she plays it straight, without a hint of the over-the-top self-consciousness that so often destroys comic performance.
Among the rest of the very solid cast, two performances absolutely must be mentioned. Timothy Busch (as outside marketer “Richard”) is wonderfully droll in his fervor for an ad campaign to push Thriveon, his slick re-branding of SP 925, and his deadpan reception of Phil’s suggestion that they try Surviveon instead is stunningly underplayed. Rhona Klein moves unflappably from helpless to giddy, and finally to stoically accepting, as the old lady Meena meets and inspires in the Bon-Ton lingerie aisle.
The set is striking in stark black and white, and flexible enough to quickly accommodate the numerous scene changes. However, the story would work just as well with a slight reduction in props (extraneous chairs, wastebaskets, etc.) and the changes might seem less chaotic with fewer items to move. However, this (like the faux-Dolly Parton intro) is a minor complaint, and really doesn’t materially detract from an overall fine and terribly funny production. Like many Twilight productions, Rx is not appropriate for children due to both language and several adult-themed moments.
Twilight Theater Company’s Rx is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, September 24th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. on Sunday. There will be an additional performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, September 21st.