Known for lighthearted fare such as "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park," playwright Neil Simon strayed into darker territory with "The Gingerbread Lady." His 1970 play centers on Evy, an alcoholic who let her addiction wreck her life.
It's not an easy subject to garner laughs — and that uneasiness pervades the production at Breakthrough Theatre, directed by Tom Larkin.
Simon's quick wit is on full display, especially during the first act. He sure can produce a fun mental image — explaining how her rent-controlled New York apartment is so affordable, Evy quips "It's a sublet from Mary Todd Lincoln."
Breakthrough's production makes the most of these comic moments. But eventually, audience members may find that while Evy's words are funny, her actions are anything but. And therein lies that uneasiness: Can you laugh at a woman so obviously in pain?
Simon wrote the play for Maureen Stapleton, who won a Tony Award for her efforts as Evy. It's the kind of role Bette Midler would jump at — caustic good-time gal, whipping off sarcastic one-liners, even as she's crumbling on the inside.
Evy, you see, is fresh out of rehab having endured 10 weeks at Happy Valley, "a rest home for drunks." She returns to her apartment to a surprise — her 17-year-old daughter, Polly, is moving in with her. For comfort, she has her best friends, gay Jimmy and vain Toby.
Evy intends to adjust to life as a sober, respectable mother. But her plans are complicated by her friends' crises — Jimmy's desperate for a job, Toby's marriage is collapsing — and an unhealthy attraction to Lou, a no-good ex-boyfriend. At a birthday party, she falls off the wagon.
Cira Larkin is Breakthrough's Edy. In a heartfelt performance, she makes brash Edy more likeable than the character probably deserves. Jenny Ornstein provides good balance as sensible Polly.
Bob Brandenburg and Vicki Burns play their "wacky friends" roles a tad on the broad side to good comic effect. Jim Cundiff gives off the right slacker vibe as Lou, but doesn't capture his darker tones. Justin J. Scarlat is goofily funny as a delivery boy who stumbles into the chaos.
The play's odd ending feels as though Simon suddenly realized his audience needed some faint version of a happy ending. The audience senses that Evy hasn't ruined all her relationships — but there still isn't much hope that her fundamental problems will ever be healed.
That dichotomy mirrors the split personality of the play itself — the witty lines and solid acting maintain goodwill with the audience, but the play's fundamental flaws are as evident as a belligerent drunk at a birthday party.
'The Gingerbread Lady'
• What: Breakthrough Theatre production of a Neil Simon comedy
• Length: 2:10, including intermission
• Where: Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, 419A. W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Mondays; 3 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 16
• Tickets: $18; $15 seniors; $12 students; $10 for all on Mondays
• Call: 407-920-4034