The Old Town Theater re-opened Feb. 14 with a full house. Whether that continues may depend on either a change in shows or a change in marketing.
The premier show is entitled "Crazy Love," which Mark Anderson, the entrepreneur behind the revitalized Alexandria landmark, brought from his theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is hoping to entice patrons back to live theater. But just what format of "theater" are we talking about?
"Crazy Love" is comedy club material staged in the format of legitimate theater. It was clear about 30 minutes into the 90 minute production that was not what some patrons were expecting. At least eight couples voted with their feet to enjoy the remainder of their Valentine's Day evening elsewhere.
As comedy club, it was enjoyable and entertaining, primarily due to the very gifted and talented performance of its star, John Branyan — writer and performer. But, that very talent raises the question, why does he needs the rest of the cast and why a theater-style staging for this type of performance?
The theme of the production is that love and marriage require understanding; a willingness to share hard times as well as good times, and above all; endurance. In order to face these requirements, the central character, portrayed by Branyan, feels he needs the advice of a "shrink."
As the show opens, Branyan is laying on a couch and offering his lament in song about the trials and tribulations of his marriage. While he's doing this, a nurse, played by Anna Klein, is seated on a desk taking notes. This musical rendition by Branyan, and one delivered later by Klein, just don't belong. It's not that Klein doesn't have a talented voice. Rather it is that the song is totally unnecessary. It comes across as being injected only to highlight her voice.
The role of shrink is portrayed by Anderson, who, in real life, is a clinical psychologist. And in a former real life he was also a comedian. In "Crazy Love" he is primarily a stage prop of questionable necessity. He enters on a pogo stick, which one must assume is done to accentuate the stereotype of psychiatrists being eccentric. Following his off-beat entrance, Anderson launches into a weather-beaten, cliché-ridden diatribe about how men are insensitive, undisciplined, sports-crazed, self-centered, TV-ized bumpkins who have no appreciation of the intricacies of male/female relationships. It seems this has all been said before, and before and before.
For anyone familiar with Rob Becker's "Defending The Caveman", which played at Washington's Improv comedy club and the Warner Theater, Anderson's introductory monologue sounded quite familiar. This was particularly surprising since Anderson is one of the founders of the Improv.
What saves the evening and makes the production well worth the price of admission is John Branyan. He is the show.
His delivery, combined with his frenetic stage gyrations, had the audience in a constant belly laugh. Not only are his singularly brilliant characterizations comical but they are also simultaneously poignant and insightful. And that is comedy at its best.
Although some of the material is a bit cluttered with clichés about male-female relationships and duties, Branyan delivered the message with such unbridled enthusiasm and hyper kinetic gymnastics it captured the audience. But his talent was somewhat isolated by the theater setting. It is definitely better suited for the comedy club or for a script more suited to his monologue.
With the audience raised to the level of an introspective comical self-appraisal, the show makes a disastrous wrong turn. It heads straight for the doldrums of a nursing home and the torturous anxieties of doubt, longing, and heartache often associated with aging and its infirmities.
The once laughter-filled audience fell totally silent and never regained their desire to participate in a fun night out. The intentions of the writers to show love as an endless and ever-evolving experience may have been good, but that is what a road to a certain location is paved with — good intentions.
In a pre-opening interview, Anderson noted, "We have run this show in our Tulsa theater for the last 18 months... And the divorce rate in Tulsa has dropped six percent since it opened." That may be. But, to paraphrase Judy Garland, this ain't Tulsa anymore, Toto.
Kudos for Renovation
In addition to Branyan, the other eye-opener of the evening was the renovated theater. Anderson deserves extra kudos for bringing the feel and ambiance of the legitimate theater back to Alexandria.
From the enhanced seating, to the professionally rejuvenated stage, to the black-lit multi-color confetti design carpet, to the black and white motif of the re-done interior, it is a delight to the senses. And the patrons could be heard expressing their appreciation.
There is also the adventurous approach to open seating, again a bow to the comedy club format. Anderson has previously described it as the "Southwest Airlines" approach. On opening night it seemed to work.
The only negatives expressed about the new physical setting came from those patrons who were seated in the balcony. Several stated it was difficult to become engaged with the show because of poor visibility. Anderson conceded that the layout of those seats may need to be re-designed.
Granted, this is the shakedown cruise and Anderson has stated that he intends to bring other shows to Alexandria in the future. From the initial turnout, there appears to be a ready and hungry audience waiting.
But that audience is also sophisticated enough to know the difference between a comedy club presentation and theater. How future productions, and "Crazy Love" in particular, are marketed may make the difference between success and another closing of The Old Town Theater.
Anderson has emphasized, "We don't want to compete with on-going live entertainment establishments such as the Birchmere and the Improv." Good idea.
The newly restored Old Town Theater is located at 815 1/2 King St. "Crazy Love" will be shown every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through March 30. Tickets are $15 on Thursday, $17 on Friday and Saturday; for more information call 703-535-8022.