‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company

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It’s not often that theatergoers have the rug of common assumptions pulled out from under them and enjoy both the trip and—as the dust and a few loose threads settle to the ground beside them—the landing. But that’s likely to happen at Unexpected Stage Company in Silver Spring, where Marc Goldsmith’s 2006 New York International Fringe Festival smash hit Danny Boy is playing through next Sunday. (You can hear the playwright in conversation with Director Christopher Goodrich, who also directed the play in New York, at the next, and final, Saturday matinee performance on October 25, 2014.)

Scott Strasbaugh (Danny), Justus Hammond (Gabe), and Briana Manente (Dori). Photo by Lewis Lorton.
Scott Strasbaugh (Danny), Justus Hammond (Gabe), and Briana Manente (Dori). Photo by Lewis Lorton.

We enter the theater to the sounds of a video game, which we must assume the sprawled, supine figure on the large faux-leather sofa is manipulating, though any signs of life are as remote as the one in his hand. Gabe (Justus Hammond), in gray sweats, navy hoodie and white socks, having apparently kicked off the black-and-white athletic shoes lying at a skewed angle on the large, rectangular zebra-design rug, leans back in the sofa, one foot on it, one on the floor. We hear faint “uh”s as he reacts half-heartedly to the action; as if the faintest effort, suggesting emotional investment in the outcome, would take too much energy.

In brief, Gabe wants to be seen as a ne-er-do-well who might even take pride in it—assuming it didn’t demand too much of him. We will soon see how wrong we are, as Hammond ably takes the character from stereotype to complex human being. Not a saint, by a long shot; but someone to reckon with. Someone, that is to say, to either want by your side—or give wide berth—when the chips are down.

Gabe’s housemate is the titular Danny (Scott Strasbaugh), who enters, repeatedly apologizing. Breaking the fourth wall, he tells us he’s been instructed by his therapist to fine himself a dollar each time he says he’s sorry; we see that the large glass bowl into which he drops a couple of bills is half full. Disparaging his current situation—working painfully below both his education and his ability, sans girlfriend, having just learned that his younger brother’s getting married—Danny tells Gabe that he’s debating two possible out-of-state trips.  One is to his high school reunion; the other, to a convention of “Little People,” the preferred term, he pointedly notes, for those like him, who also may be called Dwarves.

Completing this initial grouping is Dori (Briana Manente), Gabe’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, whose sharpness is as visual as it is verbal. Her raven hair is a match for her ink-black sweater and slacks, offset by a snow-white, low-cut, ruched white pearl-button top; her words slice and dice Gabe for being lazy and unmotivated.  Yet her actions belie their ostensible implications when, mid-excoriation, she knocks him down, tears off his clothes, jerks up his arms, trusses his hands with an apron, and . . . I’ll leave it there. Manente’s Dori is a smoldering powerhouse, but one who will also show us another side, recalling, in a way, the tough-talking whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème.

Enter Danny’s mom Sheila (Lois Sanders-Vincent) in stylish coral twin-set and “mom” jeans—an inherent contradiction sartorially that mirrors the way the character is drawn. As both character and actor, Sanders-Vincent skillfully (keeping with the musical analogies) strikes the requisite “Jewish mother” keys but plays them as sonata rather than raging ragtime nag. Like Gabe, she’s drawn to type, but also like Gabe, she will show us facets of the character—both Sheila and perhaps, by extension, the stereotype—that will surprise us. (Goldsmith does give Sheila some lines that allow Sanders-Vincent the chance to hilariously unleash the pitbull of the species, but those are less character-defining than they are setups to something Sheila or, through her, the playwright wants to say.)

Sheila reacts cautiously when Danny tells her he’s torn between traveling to Colorado for the Little People of America convention and his high school reunion; while she has worked his whole life long to minimize his sense of “otherness,” he has begun to wonder whether he should, instead, embrace it.  The “Jewish mother” wants to protect him; the intelligent woman that complements her realizes what he’s saying, but still thinks she may see what he does not.

As Danny, Strasbaugh shows us a man who has come to uneasy terms with his physical stature, having learned to joke about it to deflect the arrows, whether aimed by the ignorant or imagined out of a lifetime of jibes and stares, whispers and giggles, that he knows are still capable of hitting their mark. Danny, however, has a new girlfriend, a woman who is attracted to him in the most gratifying, validating ways: she loves his mind and his body—and is a hot babe to boot.

For her part, Alison (Dawn Thomas Reidy) displays a flexibility of mind and body that alternately puts Danny at ease, and sets him on fire. Reidy excels in the physical comedy; her X-rated French maid, complete with silky black lace-trimmed micro-miniskirt and feathery dust mop (Alison’s role-playing fetish is something Danny feels he must learn to accept; but at what cost?) is uproariously funny.  Of course, Mom (who—of course—keeps a spare key) walks right in . . . at an “opportune” moment, Alison having gone to change back into street clothes. Why in the world, she wants to know upon her return, would Danny want to go to a Dwarf convention when he has such a gorgeous, “normal” girlfriend?

That, as another character torn in two once observed, is the question. And Danny must, and will, find his own very surprising, and in the end, edifying answer—one that will raise questions for those who have never or rarely questioned their assumptions, and find common ground with those who may have wondered if they made the right choices in life. In short—the pun is intentional; Randy Newman’s song of the Seventies “struck a chord” with Strasbaugh, who “couldn’t escape its ubiquity,” writes Goodrich—it does, and will, for most of us.

The director gets the most out of his very capable cast, which also includes a fine turn by Zach Brewster-Geisz as Danny’s rival, the mercurial Trent, who will do anything to hold on to Alison. (Actually, a turn and a half for the actor, whose performance earlier this year as Marty in the coincidentally? serendipitously? titled Dani Girl was as far afield from “romantic rival” as the spaceship he piloted in it.)

Lois Sanders-DeVincent (Sheila) and Scott Strasbaugh (Danny). Photo by Lewis Lorton.
Lois Sanders-DeVincent (Sheila) and Scott Strasbaugh (Danny). Photo by Lewis Lorton.

Kristen Jeppersen’s set, complete with kitchenette, its four-legged bar stools at the counter offset by a large framed photo of the Eiffel Tower against a dawn-illumined sky on the far wall, captures in shorthand the midtown, middle-class ethos, while Peter “Zeke” Dowty’s lighting design does what it’s supposed to do. Surprisingly, there is no costume designer credited; the costumes, however, have been noted above where noteworthy.  Steve Quillin’s sound design is fine, and John Barbee’s props are tops.  Truly, all rhyming aside, they are, and bear out his note in the program thanking the director and Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, the co-producing artistic director “for letting him have some fun!”

You will, too. But you will also think. Maybe even talk.  And not just right after the show. A pretty “tall” order perhaps, for a sophisticated DC-metro theater audience, but one that I think Danny Boy fills. And aims for a height that Unexpected Stage Company’s production largely—and, if you know the company, expectedly—reaches.

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Danny Boy plays through October 26, 2014 at Randolph Road Theater – 4040 Randolph Road, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 1: Meet Scott J. Strasbaugh.

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 2: Meet Justus Hammond.

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 3: Meet Briana Manente.

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 4: Meet Lois Sanders-DiVincent.

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 5: Meet Zach Brewster-Geisz.

Meet the Cast of ‘Danny Boy’ at Unexpected Stage Company: Part 6: Meet Dawn Thomas Reidy.