Race relations in the Deep South might not leap to mind as a promising topic for a laugh-out-loud comedy. But in Shopworn, premiering at Fringe, Playwright-Producer Derek Hills (who is white) has pulled off a play that’s both punch-line funny and pretty darn woke. And Director Bryanda Minix (who is black) has guided the talented cast into four very fine performances.
Shopworn takes place in a store owned and run by the recently deceased Gertie, who was white and sold antiques, bric a brac, knickknacks, and such. Gertie’s quirky assistant Erica (Rachel Manteuffel), also white, begins the play with a fond ode to some of the items on display, so we get a sense of where we are and a preview of the stories props will tell.
Later we learn the shop is located in New Lucerne, North Carolina (a fictional town), where there’s a monument to General Robert E. Lee and Civil War reenactments are going on.
Turns out a lot of the shop’s oddments have a racist past—like a “mammy” cookie jar and a coin bank shaped like “a little black man who eats the money.” And many of the customers Gertie catered to are cracker loyalists to Lee.
I’ve jumped ahead in the story to highlight what’s so dicey and nervy about the play’s setup, because it could so easily go off the rails into cringeville. Remarkably and rewardingly, it doesn’t.
Gertie’s two sons, both white, have arrived for her memorial service. They haven’t seen each other for more than a decade and have had little to do with their mother either since she abandoned them as boys. But they’re here to accept condolences and sort out what’s to become of the shop they just inherited.
The brothers are a classic odd couple. Dalton (Gary DuBreuil) is a well-off, wrapped-tight, suited-up IT project manager from Brooklyn who makes up due dates. Ash (Jesse Marciniak) is an unkempt, lackadaisical local laborer with no wealth to his name. Hills milks their byplay for loads of laughs and DeBreuil and Marciniak’s acting teamwork is fun to watch.
The humor triangulates as the brothers interact with Erica, who’s kind of a whip-smart ditz. She shows up in a bustier made of balloons. Then later she’s got some of the play’s sharpest political zingers. The character is a delightful original, and Manteuffel plays her to the hilt.
Shopworn plays its political-conscience card with the arrival of Dalton’s lover/partner Molly (Anika Harden), who is black and who shares their dual-income household in Brooklyn. Her professional expertise is wealth inequality. Molly is the play’s most challenging and significant role, and Harden, who excels in it, maintains a compelling dignity through even the play’s edgiest riffs on race.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for Molly to take offense at the shop’s inventory of racist artifacts. But the situation keeps getting awkwarder and awkwarder, and the white boys’ inept responses get funnier and funnier. There’s a point, for instance, when Dalton says to Molly: “I come from a culture of white supremacy.” Well, duh. But in context Dalton’s lame attempt at self-exculpation to the love of his life plays hilariously.
And later there is a passage in which Molly urges Dalton to be cognizant of what is always real to her but he’s not getting. “Use your human eyes,” she tells him. “Use your human eyes.” It is a stunning moment of the play.
Gertie is heard from now and then, voiced by Assistant Director Kelly Cronenberg, who also did the clever costumes and the clutter of props. When characters hear Gertie, they say she is saying things they have heard her say before. The device doesn’t work as well as other elements in the show, though. It feels like an intrusion. The Gertie we find out about in Erica’s own words emerges as one heck of a feisty woman, a fleshed-out character we’d like to get to know. In voiceover, at least as presently conceived and executed, Gertie gets diminished.
Another aspect of the script that could use a bit more work is the fact that it’s structured like a lurching sequence of comedy sketches, which, although plentiful with punch lines, never seem to ride a wave of comic momentum that comes of mounting expectation. That minor misgiving aside, Shopworn’s appealing characters, terrific performances, and ample laughs make it an excellent and entertaining buy.
Running time: One hour 5 minutes, with no intermission.