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COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN at New Phoenix Theatre is a welcome addition to the “reunion” genre

THE BASICS: COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, a 1976 two-act play by Ed Graczyk, directed by Richard Lambert, opened on November 22 and runs through December 21, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at The New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park (853-1344) www.newphoenixtheatre.org Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (Note: no performance on Nov. 28.)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: All the action of the play takes place in a rundown 5 & Dime discount store/lunch counter in an almost abandoned town in West Texas. It’s 1985 and the “Disciples of James Dean” have gathered for their first reunion in 30 years. Their club was formed back in the summer of 1955 when Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean were filming the movie “Giant” on the ranch set named “Reata” in the nearby town of Marfa, Texas. Some of the high schoolers were cast as extras and some snuck back on the set at night. It’s a little like STEEL MAGNOLIAS (strong female roles and characters gathered for an event) or THE BOYS IN THE BAND using the reunion play format of THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (looking back on glory days while avoiding uncomfortable truths). This play, at least on opening night, meandered a bit, but the not-to-be-missed last ten minutes are what live theater is all about.

L-R Lara Haberberger as Mona (Now), Jamie Nablo as Sissy (Then) and Jessie Miller as Mona (Then) | Photo taken by Richard Lambert

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I’m not sure if these are spoilers, but here goes: There are two aspects of this play that, after you catch on, are very clever, but before that “aha” moment, may be confusing. First, while the program instructs us that the action of the play takes place during two separate periods of time, 1955 (the summer during the filming of the movie “Giant”) and 1985 (present time during the reunion at the 5 & Dime) in fact, we bounce back and forth between those two times quickly and often. Sometimes we inhabit both ‘55 and ‘85 simultaneously, even to the point of the characters “Sissy Then” (played by Jamie Nablo) and “Sissy Now” (played by Lisa Ludwig) as well as “Mona Then” (played by Jessie Miller) and “Mona Now” (played by Lara Haberberger) completing each other’s lines.

The other possible confusion is that while we see a multitude of publicity photos (and even one pirated “X-rated” photo) of the actor, James Dean, he does not appear on stage, nor does another younger character who lives in town, named “Jimmy Dean.” They are only referred to (often). The only male character on stage is Joe, of the “Then” vintage, who it turns out was best friends with Sissy and Mona during that summer of ’55.

If any of the above seems confusing, it is simplicity itself compared to the plot of the movie “Giant” which is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Having said that, playwright Ed Graczyk does honor many of the big, timeless themes of the movie: Parents trying to exert control, kids rebelling, jealousy and lust, exclusion of “the other,” and even a pivotal, high energy, lunch counter scene.

What sells this production, apart from the marvelously detailed set by Paul Bostaph, are the experienced actors.

L-R Lara Haberberger (Mona), Lisa Ludwig (Sissy), Stephanie Bax (Edna Louise), Mary Moebius (Juanita), Kerrykate Abel (Stella May) | Photo taken by Richard Lambert

What sells this production, apart from the marvelously detailed set by Paul Bostaph, are the experienced actors (OK Boomer, that’s gender neutral for actresses) on stage. These veterans include the rather imposing Kerrykate Abel who plays the rather imposing (and pretty damn nasty) Stella. Stephanie Bax plays Edna Louise, the very pregnant target of most of Stella May’s barbs. Betsy Bittar is the somewhat mysterious Joanne while Lisa Ludwig plays the flirty Sissy (Now) to Jamie Nablo’s depiction of Sissy (Then). Lara Haberberger replaced Jenn Stafford in rehearsals to be the reality-challenged Mona (Now) to Jessie Miller’s adventurous Mona (Then). Mary Moebius plays Juanita, the religious owner of the 5 & Dime, and the only male in the production is Dylan Brozyna as Joe (Then).

The set was over-the-top in terms of tchotchkes (probably not a word they would use in West Texas) as collected by the award-winning set designer Paul Bostaph who told me that, when all else fails, go to Craigslist. After you choose your seat (new seats, if you haven’t been to the NPT in awhile), before the play starts, you may want to walk down to the stage apron for a closer look at the retro merchandise. And, while we technically did not have the Paul Bostaph signature touch of real running water (the play is set in a Texas town during a drought) Bostaph came close with an Orange Crush dispenser.

Equally compelling were the costumes designed by Vivian Del Bello.

The first production of this play was in 1976 in Ohio and eventually it made its way to New York for a limited run in the early 1980s. It was also made into a movie by Robert Altman, starring Sandy Dennis, Kathy Bates, Karen Black, and, as Sissy (wait for it) Cher in her first movie role! In fact, according to the Director’s Notes, that movie made such an impression on Richard Lambert that, as he wrote, “It has been percolating for over 30 years.” Fun fact: the town of Marfa, Texas, has been used for location shoots for three major Hollywood movies: “Giant,” “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men.”

This production could have used another preview night or two that might have overcome the “opening night jitters.” There were several muffed lines by several of the actors, the Texas accents were not at all consistent, and occasionally folks seemed unsure of where they were supposed to be on the small stage. So, in the spirit of “review what you saw, not what you wished you had seen” this gets three buffalos, but given the professionalism of all involved, I’m pretty sure that it will develop into a four buffalo play very soon.

Lead image: L-R Jamie Nablo as Sissy (Then) and Jessie Miller as Mona (Then) | Photo taken by Richard Lambert.

WHAT’S NEXT: The highly anticipated KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN by Manuel Puig, directed by Victoria Pérez, starring Rolando Martin Gomez and Rick Lattimer, March 6-28, 2020 (as usual Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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