Theater Review: Five Nickels lacks bite

if your grandparents are in search of a comedy that won’t offend them, if your doctor has warned you to avoid shocks of any kind, Five Nickels is the play that fits the bill. It’s mild as a spring shower, and not a bit more dangerous. It’s even occasionally charming.

The first act is called “Five Nickels,” and is about Ed, the 60-year-old chief usher at a New England Catholic church, and Catherine, the slightly younger widow who wants his companionship. For six weeks, we’re asked to understand, Catherine has been trying to get Ed’s attention with a “pew rent” of five nickels (as opposed to a single quarter), and now she’s going to go out on a limb and tell him directly of her intentions. The problem is that Ed is pretty well confirmed in his bachelorhood, and anyway has long been in love with his best friend’s wife Mary.

Still, Catherine won’t be put off: she’s going to get him to join her for breakfast, even if he’d rather stay at church with his trusty carpet sweeper. Frank Robertson plays Ed as a likable cipher, a man whose inner complications have so far eroded that there’s nothing left underneath the façade. (Come to think of it, Robertson came across much the same in Later Life a few weeks ago, also at Venue.) Lynn McAvoy as Catherine also doesn’t display much interior life: together these two paint an almost-frightening pageant of shallow humanity. What finally happens to them is convincing enough, but one wishes that a Dr. Freud would bring a sledgehammer to their bland existences. Or a Dr. Jung. Or a Dr. Seuss.

But I digress. More interesting than “Five Nickels” is “Late Date,” the four-character piece that opens Act Two. The subject here is the revulsion the young feel at seeing their parents re-enter the dating jungle, and the talented actors who bring it off are Tiffany Coryell as twentysomething Carrie, Neil Brown as her counterpart Jim, and Bill Harber and Annie Murren as their parents, the middle-aged Walt and Alice (Harber particularly shows some dramatic verve). It’s been many years since Walt’s wife died, and the days when interested widows left pies and casseroles on his porch have faded into memory.

But he needs companionship, so he calls Alice – Jim’s mother – and invites her to dinner. Her initial “no” is less off-putting than his daughter’s astonishment that he’d ask anyone at all for a date, and Jim is no less amazed that his mother would consider going (“So you didn’t love Dad!”). There’s not much more to the sketch – the children’s objections never dent their parents’ freedom – but at least playwright Neary here dramatizes an interesting state of affairs, the would-be tyranny of the young over the old. If only these kids were more worthy adversaries, this short play might have some real resonance. [dataBox]

There’s virtually no resonance to sketch three: “Lilacs,” a duet in which Venue executive director Corinne Broskette and Robertson play a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy who meet briefly and discuss her desire to be an actress and his to be a priest. The acting here is delightful, though, and if the surprise at the end feels arbitrary and inessential, still this is a sweet little throwaway.

Sketch four, entitled “The Wedding,” begins when Doris, played by Murren, tells her husband Frank, played by Harber, that she has reason to believe their daughter has been “intimate” with her boyfriend. Moments later that daughter (Coryell) is announcing her intention to marry that boyfriend (Brown), and Frank is demanding that the boy officially ask him for his daughter’s hand. In the rest of the play, Frank and the young man meet, there’s an encounter with the in-laws-to-be, a controversy over where to hold the reception, and a meaningless dustup over which band will play there. To call these problems unimportant is already to give them too much weight. Fortunately, the acting is skillful, as is the whole evening’s directing, by Jeaux Brown and Mary Kay Cyrus.

But why bring us Five Nickels? Venue, the area needs you. We have few theaters. Every production counts.

Surely, there were better choices than this toothless exercise.

Jack Neary’s Five Nickels is a pleasant but all-too-unambitious examination of male/female relationships at various points along the age spectrum. There’s nothing even slightly daring about the play, which is somewhat reminiscent of early Neil Simon or maybe Love American Style, and it’s hard to guess what sort of calculation led Venue Ensemble Theatre to produce it. An undemanding workout for developing actors? An attempt to rescue a script from oblivion? Still, the Venue performers do a mostly creditable job of presenting the four vignettes that make up the entertainment, and there are a few good laughs in the course of the evening.

So let’s look on the bright side:

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