Fuddy Duddy 

Amnesia comedy Fuddy Meers forgets virtues of restraint

The cast of characters in David Lindsay-Abaire's darkly humorous Fuddy Meers offer a catalog of pathologies and speech impediments. There's an amnesiac, a stroke victim, a pot-puffing dyslexic, a limping guy with a lisp and a ventriloquist prone to blackouts.

Fuddy Meers' funniest moments involve mixed-up wordplay worthy of Abbott and Costello. For instance, the lisping guy says that the ventriloquist's mother was "a free-bather" (i.e., a cocaine free-baser). When the amnesiac doesn't understand, the stroke victim explains, via her screwed-up sentence structure, "A base-freer. She base-freed croquet."

For a while, it's entertaining simply to watch the ensemble run the verbal obstacle course Lindsay-Abaire built for them. But those pleasures can't last forever, and Essential Theatre's production must contend not just with the enormously contrived plot, but the problematic "serious" material at the play's core.

Our forgetful heroine Claire (Patricia Jackson) suffers from "psychogenic amnesia," a complaint similar to Guy Pearce's condition in Memento. Her supportive husband Richard (Randy Weinstein) tells her that she wakes up each morning with no recollection of her past, and even if she regains her memories during the day, she loses them again when she falls asleep.

Jackson gives Claire the chipper disposition of a Midwestern housewife, and though she's eager to find out who she is, she willingly accepts some startling events as "normal." Like when a ski-masked fugitive claiming to be her brother Zach (Alex Van) bursts in and whisks her out of house. Not only does Zach have a limp and a lisp, he's deaf in one badly burned ear that's bright red and slightly pointy, as if he said "lend me an ear" to the devil. He warns Claire not to trust Richard, even though Zach himself is suspiciously evasive about their past.

Zach brings Claire to the home of her mother (G. Morgan Timmis), who's left with mangled speech due to a stroke. At one point she airs all of the play's secrets and lies, but in words that are almost entirely gibberish. Claire also meets Millet (Anthony Q. Farrell), who's rather meek but speaks through a profane hand puppet. Claire doesn't worry too much over the fact that Zach, Millet and the puppet are all wearing manacles, like chain-gang escapees.

Any amnesia story is a search for identity, and initially Fuddy Meers makes some interesting points about how we define ourselves: Claire says she likes juice and hates a particular dress, but Richard tells her that's the opposite of her "normal" taste. Lindsay-Abaire's prettiest moments have Claire seizing on tiny memories of her childhood, like her father walking nine dogs and looking like a model of the planets orbiting the sun.

Many of the play's roles go to wild extremes that grow tiresome, but the performances by Weinstein and Hampton Whatley, as Claire's dyslexic, pothead son, give Fuddy Meers some grounding in reality. Playing off Whatley's hilariously surly teen, Weinstein puts on the front of a hip, supportive grown-up, despite the fact that Richard himself is a former junkie.

By giving Fuddy Meers so many eccentric characters, Lindsay-Abaire must rely on labored plot mechanics and too much suspension of disbelief. The play also builds to revelations of physical abuse, which fit uncomfortably with the play's comic context.

Fuddy Meers' set consists of gray walls and little ornamentation, and no doubt needs to flexible enough to accommodate the other two shows in Essential's 2003 Festival of New American Theatre. Unfortunately it's a dreary eyesore, although it does serve to evoke the prison cells that some characters have escaped from. Though Fuddy Meers finds some genuinely big laughs, it's drab set and dysfunctional themes are better left forgotten.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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