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Checking in at the Suburban Motel 

Tough times are assailing the restaurant biz, so Pineville Dinner Theater is charting a new course. They've changed their menu, slashed buffet prices, and cooked up a couple of special student deals. Chef Cliff has gone totally country in the kitchen: fried chicken, braised short ribs, beer-battered tilapia and country-fried steak with gravy among the mains; mac and cheese, creamed corn, green beans, hushpuppies and grits among the sides; ham and cornbread at the carving table.

Onstage, artistic director Brett Gentile is also steering a new course, offering two one-acts from George F. Walker's Suburban Motel, "Problem Child" and "Criminal Genius." They're not your typical harmless, mindless dinner theater fare. Or farce. Foul language is sprinkled amid these lowlife comedies of errors, along with some dramatic protein. Conflict between an unfit mother and a state social worker takes an ugly turn in "Problem Child," and the seemingly slapstick "Criminal Genius" climaxes in gunfire.

Mark Scarboro brings his trashy neurotic A-game to both halves of this twinbill, reason enough to book this Motel at this price without the chow. Autumn Gentile, as much a PDT fixture as her husband, is predictably superb as the unfit mom and a bossy hostage, and Kristy Morley transforms credibly from social worker to two-bit criminal.

The one recurring character at Room 6 is Phillie Phillips, the motel janitor who is occasionally roused from a drunken haze to fits of purpose. Massive Chris Walters is the perfect counterweight to Scarboro's darting restlessness. Gangly Robert Crozier doesn't appear until after intermission, Scarboro's dumber sibling in "Criminal Genius."

We don't get to see Scarboro much anymore, so try not to miss him -- or Cliff's wicked country-fried steak.

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