The APL Drama Club's presentation of "Flaming Idiots" by British playwright Tom Rooney at the Kossiakoff Center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory campus last weekend landed with the energy of gangbusters.
Published in 1993, the farce, directed here by Scott Lichtor (with assistance from Katie Marcotte, production manager and Lauren Kennel, stage manager), adapts well to the space, which was designed for technical presentations.
Constructed by Dave Zotian, a sturdy white set with red and blue accents functions nicely. Five doors easily accommodate hundreds of door-slamming entrances, with space to spare for the director and actors to play around with physical comedy.
Liz Bathrick's costumes are spot on. And the tech savvy, cartoonish audio/visual effects operated by Eric Chang and Sarah Kirby are awesome.
Rooney's minimalist plot — his comedy overshadows his storytelling — centers on Carl and Phil (skillfully played by Anne Marcotte and Rebecca Koslover), ex-postal workers who have just signed a 10-year lease with a mob boss to open their own restaurant.
But as the inexperienced restaurateurs sweat running out of money before they've officially opened, the "boys" in pants and ponytails decide to take desperate measures to beef up their business.
Their fiercest competitor, Zippy's, has been the local hot spot since an infamous mobster was murdered there decades ago. So Phil and Carl concoct a scheme to stage a fake murder in their own dining room by hiring a has-been hit man to "kill" a dead body borrowed from the morgue.
As the lights rise on the kitchen area of "Flaming Idiots," named for its signature cocktail, Carl and Phil dive into shtick reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Add in a few side plots with sight gags and catch phrases galore, and Act 1 flies like a runaway laugh train.
Variations on "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride" serve as fertile comic material, as does "the end is in sight" — butt jokes are hardly off limits here.
In the program, Drama Club president Koslover writes that club members presenting this 13th show come from the "same pool of individuals who launch spacecraft to explore Pluto, or who work on next generation missile defense systems, or who develop unique neuroimaging technology for controlling prosthetics."
Their creative passion and after-hours work ethic shine onstage easily in "Flaming Idiots."
Joe Downs as Task, the neighborhood's mounted policeman, literally summersaults his way onstage, tickling the audience with his cluelessness, particularly when interacting with the deaf cook and the ashen mannequin/corpse in Act 2.
Lynne Reggia, a Drama Club founder, is a riot as the seasoned waiter/struggling actor who turns the tables to interview Carol and Phil during his own employment application.
The Eugene character wears a prosthetic nose and Groucho Marx-style glasses. In a standout moment, he, Reggia, attempts to quote Shakespeare in a trilling voice that would be a credit to any Muppet.
As Ernesto, Kevin Piaskowski is furtively funny as the Norwegian (maybe) busboy with a nefarious secret. His physicality is always interesting; watching him slink about clutching an attaché case adds a delicious hint of suspense.
Shannon Willing as Bernadette, the deaf cook, speaks volumes through pantomime. As strong a stage presence as any, she delivers a fine performance in a challenging role that should knock audience members over at play's end.
Unfortunately, overdoing a sight gag does a bit of disservice to Jenny Wright's performance as the food critic, Jayne Fryman.
After an elaborate set up by Phil, Jayne's first entrance introduces a gag that is an absolute hoot in that moment. But repeating it at every entrance (as the script dictates) quickly becomes old hat. Sometimes, less is more.
Wright, who looks lovely in her role, is occasionally difficult to hear. But the spicy chemistry she and Piaskowski as Ernesto create is winning.
When Chris Rogers makes his entrance as aging hit man Louie in Act 2, the pace briefly slows to a crawl. The lull could simply have been an opening night hiccup; overall, Rogers' performance is charming. His well-timed delivery of "Kill all the jerks in this country, there won't be may people left" is a great moment.
Lichtor has much to be proud of in the APL Drama Club's production of "Flaming Idiots," especially his creative casting and choreography of the physical comedy.
"Flaming Idiots" continues at the Kossiakoff Center, JHUAPL, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Friday and Saturday Aug. 18–19, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Aug 20, at 2 p.m. Performances are free and open to the public. For information, go to jhuapl.edu/drama.