by Hugh Hunter
“The Most Deserving”, now running at Allen Lane Theater, is just a lot of fun. The script of playwright Catherine Trieschmann simply suggests we should not take anyone or anything seriously. Under the direction of Nancy Kreider, the actors take the ball and run with it.
The play has a viable plot. Five standing members of an Arts Council in a small Kansas town must decide which local artist is most deserving of a $20,000 grant. Three amateurs are active candidates for the award. Only after a sequence of riotous events do you learn who wins.
But the story is strictly secondary, a platform to laugh at innumerable matters: falsely motivated philanthropy, nativist politics and wingnut diversity talk, game-playing sex (inside and outside of marriage), small town backbiting, freakishness in the arts and manipulative vote gathering, just to name a few.
Everywhere, desperate self-interest is on display. Each member of the council has a private agenda. Truth does not matter; arguments are hilariously self-serving. The members seek alliances, then change alliances when the ground shifts under their feet. Naked self-advancement is the only true belief.
With the help of lighting (Rachel Cline), Kreider’s own stage design uses both eaves to create three distinct sets, each with its own ambiance. Sound design of Kim Pelle is devil-may-care and blithe, while actress Kellie Cooper does double duty as costume designer.
But the true star of the night is the six-member cast, mostly Allens Lane veterans, and their side-splitting antics. Marc C Johnson is uproarious as the black artist, Everett, a wheelchair-bound paranoid who makes religious icons from trash. One council member, Dwayne (Michael Tamin Yurcaba), hopes to win the award with his collection of vice-presidential portraits. He presents himself as a “minority” candidate, too, when he explains he is “one-sixteenth gay.”
The other four members are equally ludicrous. Domineering Jolene (Janet Wasser) chairs the council meetings. Her changes in facial expression are priceless. Husband Ted (Scott R. Grumling) is an Englishman with roller-coaster sexual interests. Edie (Lauri Jacobs) is a dowdy widow philanthropist who freely vents chimerical opinions, especially when drunk, and Liz (Kellie Cooper) is a schemer on a par with Jolene and the chairwoman’s main rival.
The final scene is pure pandemonium. All board members are on stage when their flimflam is laid bare. Indignation rages. Everyone is hurt by new knowledge of betrayal but gives no thought to his/her own double-dealing.
“The Most Deserving” is not profound. There is no dimension of suffering in its comedy, and the point of view is too extreme to take seriously. But it is boisterous fun from beginning to end, a fresh, unclouded romp. Many comedies feel strained, trying too hard to get laughs. Trieschmann’s farceur humor comes across as unplanned, and the airy performances of the actors match up perfectly.
“The Most Deserving” runs through March 18 at Allens Lane Theater, 601 W. Allens Lane. Information at 215-248-0546 or www.allenslane.org.