There’s one thing you can say about a New Colony show: characters in this energetic group’s plays are always full of surprises. This is due to the uniquely collaborative way they create their original works — using only a basic outline for the play, the actors begin to develop their individual characterizations, and the writers help take these characterizations and build a story. So, the writers and actors have fairly equal ownership over the creation of the material. The directors and designers then help shape the story from the audience’s perspective. Altogether, according to The New Colony’s website, the entire process can take up to six months.
Pancake Breakfast, their latest show playing at the Viaduct Theatre, is no exception — this is a work chock-full of unique and honest individuals with winding backstories.
The Malloy family is healing after their matriarch (Grandma Memaw, I think they called her) has passed away. To help honor her legacy, they continue their Fourth of July tradition of a pancake breakfast followed by all sorts of wholesome American traditions, such as watermelon eating competitions, parades and Abraham Lincoln lookalike contests. (And following shows about tupperware, fratboys, summer camp and bluegrass, The New Colony seems to have embraced “Americana” as their dramatic theme.)
However, this extended family has a lot of baggage and unhealed wounds, which begin to smolder and eventually flare up during this day of firework-happy festivities.
Judging from the play’s description on their website, I’m assuming the direction of the piece has changed throughout its creation. What sounded once like a wacky dysfunctional family comedy, as described on their site, has evolved into a 90-minute character study of a family in pain. And the pancakes only make a brief appearance. Petty and exhausting arguments (“I hate my mom because she wants me to have a loving relationship with her!”) start to make sense about 3/4 of the way through, and then the play takes an interesting turn with a family intervention. However, you can’t help but feel this crucial plot element surfaced late in the creation process and wasn’t fully fleshed out. It comes out of thin air, and is largely unresolved by the conclusion. I’m fine with messy endings — that’s life! — but here it simply felt undercooked.
Solid acting (including remarkable performances from Arlene Malinowski as a nagging mother and recent divorcée and Megan Johns as the feisty new wife) keeps this pancake from deflating. (I also must note that Jack McCabe, as the family’s wacky-yet-wise grandfather, is nearly a dead ringer for Sam Waterston — which is even eerier as Waterston’s character on Law and Order is named Jack McCoy. Anyway…) Direction by Sean Kelly is ok (loved some of the choreographed scene changes accompanied by John Philip Sousa marches), but the Viaduct’s cave of a venue isn’t one of my favorites — dialogue gets gobbled up in the space, and the tricky seating arrangement can result in actors playing key scenes with backs facing half the audience. Which happens here. A lot.
(Side note: to get in the spirit of the thing, Katy Walsh of The Fourth Walsh and I met at The Golden Nugget for our own pre-show pancake breakfast/dinner. Warm, comforting pancakes may be nice before heading out into 20-degree weather, but aren’t recommended before going to the theatre. Just an FYI.)
“Pancake Breakfast” plays through Dec. 19 at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave. More info here >