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Imaginative Invalids 

Recovering actor on the road again

Nearly two years ago, the news sent shockwaves through Charlotte's theater community. Carl McIntyre, one of the city's top professional stage talents, was felled by a stroke.

He had been a romantic lead in productions by Charlotte Rep and Theatre Charlotte. Besides acting with Charlotte Shakespeare, he had been the company's managing director. So you can imagine the buzz at McGlohon Theatre when members of the Metrolina Theatre Association gathered for their second annual awards ceremony -- just three days after his wife Elizabeth dialed 911.

When I encountered McIntyre at ImaginOn a few months ago, I could hardly recognize him. Worse, when he tried to talk to me, I could only make out a fraction of what he said.

He's still traveling the long road to recovery. But beginning this week, McIntyre's fans can catch up with him in Autobahn, at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. The 46-year-old has a role that fits his current capabilities like a driving glove -- a gift from a theater producer who has spent more than his share of time on hospital gurneys in recent years.

Michael Simmons has had multiple kidney and liver surgeries. While McIntyre's ordeal has slimmed him down, Simmons is contending with a certain amount of abdominal swelling.

"Apparently my liver and my pancreas are not where they're supposed to be," Simmons concedes. He's between surgeries right now, and he'll be steering McIntyre in his Autobahn comeback.

He'll have plenty of help. Simmons will be splitting directing chores with Paige Johnston and Glenn Hutchinson. It was Johnston who connected Simmons with McIntyre. She's also acting opposite McIntyre in the last of playwright Neil LaBute's automotive vignettes.

To Simmons, McIntyre was actually a godsend. "Here's the deal about the show," Simmons explains. "There are several scenes in here with non-speaking characters, and how are we going to get a high-caliber actor to come in and still spend the amount of time we need in the rehearsal process, knowing that they don't have any lines? We were afraid, honestly, that we weren't going to get any actors."

McIntyre seemed like the perfect answer to Johnston, and Simmons enthusiastically supported the idea to invite him to join the cast at CAST. You can bet McIntyre loved it.

Quite a trip for Simmons, too, but the Johnston-McIntyre chemistry has overcome all difficulties.

"Because they know each other so well, when Carl would have difficulty communicating a thought, Paige would already be -- no pun intended -- on the same page as him. It's been a joy working with him, because he's done all his homework and more. He comes in as prepared as any other actor. Truly professional."

Johnston's involvement with Autobahn has yielded another big dividend. Her husband, Jay Thomas, is a cinematographer. Meshing with Simmons' production concept, Thomas will fill the walls of the CAST "boxagon" with fresh footage. So when the actors begin filing in behind the wheels of LaBute's automotive American odyssey, the rear projections giving the audience a sense of perpetual motion will all be in the family.

The Pineville Answer

Over 100 hopeful actors and actresses converged on ImaginOn last month for a full afternoon of regional auditions. After seeing and hearing five hours of dramatic monologues and Broadway melodies, at least one of the 23 delegations from theater companies across the Carolinas emerged disgruntled.

"Where's the funny?" crabbed Craig Spradley. Evidently, the comedy ham he and partner Jeff Pillars were searching for at this meat market was in short supply.

Theatergoers needn't fret over any such shortage. Spradley and Pillars have set up shop out on Park Road -- and resoundingly answered their own question. There's plenty of comedy in Having a Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her, the first offering at the new Pineville Dinner Theater. Plenty of meat, too, at a classy buffet.

Doors open at 6 p.m., and there's reserved table seating. You're not abandoned once you're shown to your seat. Au contraire. There's an attentive wait staff to handle drink orders, clear plates and silverware, and bring your dessert during the first intermission.

Even though we arrived at 6:30, there was plenty of time for Sue and me to peruse the wine list and graze at the buffet. A massively remodeled Coach's Sports Bar now sports genuine gourmet pretensions -- very different from the "your three meats" promised by an abortive attempt to resurrect dinner theater back in the 1990s.

Hell, there were three different choices of fish and at least that many varieties of chicken. Lobster crusted grouper, chicken cordon bleu and beef medallions with blue cheese sauce were all there for the taking. Veal, too. If that's too narrow a choice -- or you wish to go vegetarian -- there was stuffed pasta, stuffed portabella, and a nicely peppered eggplant-and-tomato soup. Carbs? Two rice dishes, a seafood gumbo, and -- the novelty that brought me back for seconds -- baked potatoes buried in a thick smoked-gouda melt.

Salads need work, but that's showbiz. As we waited for the 8 o'clock curtain, there were full rations of Three Stooges films projected on three wide screens in the dining hall and a steady stream of Dean Martin pouring out of a boom box next door at the buffet.

Comedy onstage aims for a similar mix of sauciness and physicality. Two sisters and two best buddies are betraying each other in this bawdy romantic tangle concocted by William Van Zandt and Jane Milmore. All the deceit unravels when sisters Kathy and Jennifer converge at their parents' cottage to help them celebrate their 29th anniversary. The game of musical beds spills outdoors after midnight, drawing the attention of a bear, and culminating in cascades of embarrassment, fisticuffs and partial nudity.

Spradley directs brilliantly. Maybe he didn't find them at last month's cattle call, but newcomers Kelly Ray and Michelle Presley Harkness qualify as prime finds as the sisters. As the temptress, Kathy, Ray has a relatively mundane role amid the mayhem, but as the skittish married prude, Harkness gets to launch the physical fun with her preternatural rigidity and scruples.

The weak links in the cast are the young guys, Austin Herring and Richard "Bud" Eason. Herring has all the chauvinistic piggishness of Jennifer's domineering wastrel of a husband, and Eason makes a superb partner in all his physical comedy. I just see Danny and Paul as older buddies than these guys.

So what cinches this whole dinner package? Have a taste of the husband-and-wife tag team of Brett and Autumn Gentile as the parents, the Hogans. Mary Hogan is the indulgent mother and the undersexed wife, tending to get a bit frisky when anniversaries roll around. Bill is the real piece of work, a pot-bellied, bellowing, don't-bother-me slob of a husband who doesn't mind roaring his disapproval of any man his daughters drag across the threshold.

In tandem, the Gentiles are screamingly funny, particularly in the wild finale. There's the funny.

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