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Dysfunctional Family 

But With Better Lighting

OK, so the patrician board of directors at Charlotte Rep didn't handle last year's dismissal of company founder Steve Umberger with ideal delicacy. Then the Rep's new artistic regime took a few pratfalls, ruffled some feathers, and stirred up some controversies.But hey, theatre folk are famous for their excesses -- and theatre companies can be as fractious as redneck families. Life goes on. Better yet, Umberger hasn't gone away.

After resurrecting his PlayWorks company last summer and reviving a successful comedy he directed 10 years earlier, Shirley Valentine, Umberger is back for a second SummerStage season. So is his wife, Rebecca Koon, who starred brilliantly as Shirley.

SummerStage 2003 begins at McGlohon Theatre this week by revisiting Open Season, a flamboyant celebration of theatrical excess by Michael McKeever. This backstage lark, given a pair of uproarious readings at the 2002 New Plays in America Festival, takes us to the summit of artistic ego and celebrity conceit. But beneath the posturing grandiloquence, there's a more touching theme that Umberger as a director has always excelled at: the primacy of family.

Umberger loved the script at first sight.

"Essentially, it's light," he admits. "But it has all this heart and warmth to it. It's interesting how the play has this wonderful crisp style and then, as it develops, so do the characters. The second act jumps into another genre, gets into some real things about this family that's been battling for years and years -- and how they begin to learn to communicate with each other."

The script has particularly juicy roles for Koon and Rep mainstay Graham Smith to feast on as Mallory and Edmund Dupre. But the true protagonist of the piece is Edmund's grandson, Christian Knight, played by Scott Helm. The arc of this one-time child star's growth will remind you of the role Helm played last fall in Rep's wildly successful Fully Committed -- or at least the main role.

These same performers wowed me last year when McKeever's script was called The Dangerous Place. I still recall the signature epigram: "Theatre is like life -- only with better lighting!"

During the second weekend of Open Season's three-week run, a SummerStage New Play Festival presents staged readings of new works at Duke Power Theatre. Opening the readings on June 20 will be an evening that Umberger is promoting as The Judy Simpson Cook Surprise Short-Order Playwright Hour because the play Cook is working on is untitled and incomplete. Under a similar tight deadline, Cook cranked out a comedy in eight days for a sit-down SummerStage reading last year. That script, Starstruck, just finished its premiere production at Flat Rock Playhouse.

Next in the lineup on July 21 is Hal Corley's Brush the Summer By, a new take on sexual morality in the age of AIDS. Then on July 27, we'll get to see a totally different side of McKeever in a reading of The Garden of Hannah List, an exploration of evil in Nazi Germany from a totally unorthodox angle.

The script for July 28 hasn't been announced, but the lineup of actors -- including notable MIA's from Charlotte Rep's 2002-03 season -- is already taking shape. It includes Duke Ernsberger, Kevin Campbell, Terry Loughlin, Rebecca Koon, Chandler McIntyre, Claudia Carter Covington, Dean Whitworth, and Graham Smith. Directors are Ann Marie Costa, Covington, and Umberger.

Churches are thinking about cutting their losses and closing down a couple of days each week. Synagogues are merchandising the High Holy Days, selling tickets at a discount. Welcome to the new Neil Simon apocalypse.

In the King of Broadway's new comedy, God's Favorite, the trials of Job are transported from the land of Uz in the era of the Old Testament patriarchs to the edge of Long Island in the age of Carvel franchises and 800 numbers.

That's a wide chasm to leap, as the briskly paced romp at CP Summer Theatre hilariously shows. The latter-day Job has no camels, sheep, or she-asses among his vast holdings. After a hardscrabble youth in the Bronx, Joe Benjamin has made his fortune in high-quality cardboard boxes. His living room is studded with priceless art, his wife is draped in furs, and his children are impressively spoiled.

God's trial is initiated with thoroughly modern due process. He sends His messenger to Joe B, offering him the pre-trial option to renounce God without any subsequent sufferings. Due to the down market in religious fervor, working conditions for God's messengers seem to have deteriorated. Sidney Lipton appears in a bedraggled Robert Hall raincoat, and his part-time salary isn't enough to move with his wife to Miami.

You want supernatural? Lipton is able to enter Joe B's home despite a fully operational burglar alarm system. Even more incredibly, at the height of the torments heaped upon our hero, his swimming pool burns down!

The transformation inside Joe's swank home occasioned another miracle last Thursday. When the curtains parted after intermission and revealed the divine devastation, the CP audience actually applauded the Robert Croghan set design.

The audience was by no means profligate, withholding their standing O until Dennis Delamar took his bows as Joe. Delamar earns his kudos by deftly balancing the comedy of Joe's physical maladies -- hemorrhoids are the clincher -- with an anger against the Almighty that only comes to a boil when his eldest son is afflicted. Loving this wayward son David is a trial in itself, since Chris Gleim broadly overplays his drunkenness and dissipation. His repentance is more credible.

Otherwise, director Tom Hollis casts his comedy superbly, pacing the action -- and pitching the tone -- to perfection. Particularly well tuned were the comical fears and tremblings of Kevin Campbell as Sidney, hypochondria on loan from Felix Unger and voice-of-God shtick stolen shamelessly from the Wizard of Oz movie. I've never seen Campbell funnier, and Delamar looked dangerously close to laughter during his shenanigans.

Only at the very end did God's Favorite become overly formulaic and Simonized. Before Simon tidies up, there is much grim truth amid the ingratiating bonhomie. In our devoutly rational age, when God scorns a righteous man, there are no "comforters" to question Joe's true rectitude or reaffirm God's unerring justice.

Instead, Joe is surrounded by skepticism and puzzlement. People are no longer concerned with the quality of Joe's relationship with God. They're more worried by the fact that he believes he has a relationship with God -- and that a good relationship is worth maintaining. If the furs and the pool are toast, why not curse the Lord and die? As Sidney points out -- with utmost irony -- renunciations are toll-free calls.

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