Orange County Register—March 15, 2002
By Eric Marchese, special to the Register
Take a couch, use it as the central object in a collection of 10-minute comical plays, and what have you got? The Hunger Artists Theater Company’s “Couch Potato Comedy Festival.”
The same lowly white couch is used, in various guises, in all seven of the show’s plays. It’s a device that’s been used successfully by other small Orange County theater troupes—most notably the New Voices Playwrights Workshop, which has built entire evenings of 10-minute plays around a common theme.
In those cases, however, the like-themed plays were assigned to the troupe’s stable of writers, then the most well-written ones selected for the show. Instead, Hunger Artists started with up-and-coming playwright Mike Mariano’s play “Couchophilia,” then collected short plays by two other new playwrights and injected the same couch into each scene to create its comedy festival.
The first problem with this concept is that the couch is really only prominent in a couple of the playlets—the aforementioned “Couchophilia,” which closes the evening, and the untitled couch potato skit, written by troupe artistic director Melissa Petro, that opens the show. “Couchophilia” starts with a genuinely funny concept and, in a short space of time, does a lot. Tony (Russ Marchand) is crazy about his sexy red couch. He licks it, fondles its pillows and, in a daring move, unzips its slipcover.
Enter neighbor Molly (Angela Lopez), who almost catches Tony in the act of couchophilia. She’s returning Tony’s IKEA catalog, in which he invests the same passions most other guys would reserve for Playboy. Molly’s just looking for some alone time with Tony’s couch, which she also finds irresistible. As the play ends, Tony is shocked to find panties and other incriminating objects in the seat cushions—proof his beloved couch is cheating on him.
Petro’s opening skit features Marchand as a teen whose mom (an offstage Lopez) finds impossible to pry loose from the couch. Because this potato’s a teen whose obsessive channel-changing is a feverish search for sexual content on the tube, the skit wastes the chance to truly satirize the banality of television’s content and the attendant mindless mentality it fosters.
Jason Lindner’s “Dead Duck in Thirty Minutes or Less” has even less of a point to it. A pizza delivery guy delivers an order to a demented family whose members play-act using inanimate objects. This lame “Duck” offers only nonsensical characters and dialogue—no couch potatoes, and no comedy within miles.
Mariano has one more brief skit worthy of the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” in which a woman (Jessica Beane) keeps running out and finding new husbands to marry whenever her current husbands are out buying groceries.
It’s Jay Rehak’s three plays, though, that save the day for Hunger Artists and give the troupe’s patrons something genuinely funny to feast upon. Each starts with a different premise, defines its characters and delivers the comic goods, giving “Couch Potato” director Laura Viramontes and her actors something substantial with which to work.
“Once Upon an F’ing Island” is a brief, brutally funny character study. Two unlike personalities (Mark Palkoner, Jami McCoy) have washed up on an island after a plane crash, a la “Cast Away” (there’s even a Wilson volleyball with bloody face). She vents her fury, defensiveness and hostility by spewing profanity; his sensibilities are way too delicate for him to use the dreaded f-word.
In “All in the Demographics,” the handlers and pollsters of a bachelor Southerner running for president (the wonderful, ever-versatile Marchand) tell him his constituents want to see him married. Rehak does plenty with a good premise, all of it clever and enjoyable.
The evening’s peak is Rehak’s “Marinated Steaks and Socks,” about a young couple’s verbal miscommunications surfacing during a marital therapy session. Well-written and logical in a comedic sense, “Socks” is also well-acted: McCoy’s Francine is chipper and bewildered, Ryan Gray’s John sullen and apoplectic, and Beane’s doctor cheerful and patronizing. For Hunger Artists, the lesson is that sharper writing is the key to an evening of sustained laughter.