Playhouse Tuesdays: The Trouble with Summer People
February 10, 2015
by erica wachs, prose reader
Hello, playwriting blog. Ah, how I’ve missed you. It’s been a very busy few weeks. I started rehearsal for my new show (which I will get to in a moment), midterms are just around the corner, and (most importantly), I set my new default font on Word to Cambria. Just to shake things up a bit.
I want to step back from the heavy drama I’ve been covering the past few weeks and move to something I hope is able to cheer up what is quickly turning into the gloomiest, snowiest winter I’ve ever lived through. What I want to speak about today is the show that I’m currently performing in this April, called The Trouble with Summer People by Tim Kelly. The play is about a Cape Cod-esque bed and breakfast, which becomes the site of a gruesome murder. The owner of the B&B calls up her nephew Rupert Baxter, who is just out of the Army, to help her solve the mystery. Even though the season hasn't started, summer people (tourists) start appearing. A storm traps all of the suspects in the house, and they agree to play "the truth game." In doing so, the killer is revealed.
It sounds very… stereotypical. I’m aware. But is that the point? Tim Kelly, by the way, is known for being a positively prolific playwright… in his career, he turned out over 300 plays! For a bit of perspective, I consider myself a playwright, and I’m working on my third. The question then presents itself: was Kelly using a formula to crank out show after show, or does his writing illustrate a knowledge about people and about their interactions that speaks to something larger than just tropes?
One thing notable about this play in particular is that every character is wonderfully eccentric. In this play, though everything wraps up neatly, no one is perfect. I play a character named Fluff, who one of my cast mates likened to the childhood fictional character Amelia Badelia, a maid who always manages to mess things up. This pretty much sums my character up in a nutshell: everything I do is wrong. I accidentally “clean” the murder room, remove the tape from the murder chair because it doesn’t “look nice,” and am more concerned about practicing my Hula than doing actual work. (Note: my character is terrible at hula.) All of these characters have their own quirks, from the police chief having an inferiority complex regarding his status as actual “chief” to the taxi driver being helplessly in love with the handywoman who fixes the houses on the island. If Kelly were writing at a purely stereotypical level of the show, these oddities would simply, in my opinion, be splayed out for laughs. One theory of humor is, after all, hypothesized by Henri Bergson is when you are reminded that other people are subject to the mechanicals of life—a ditz will always be a ditz, and so forth. Is Kelly just playing for laughs?
There’s a moment in the show where in response to a question along the lines of “didn’t anyone tell you?”, my character responds with, “Nobody ever tells Fluff anything.” It’s a funny line, because my character is clearly untrustworthy, as I can’t even change the sheets in a bedroom without getting into trouble. But there’s a second moment where my character repeats the line again, with the addition, “One of these days I’m going to leave for Hawaii.” To be honest, the joke isn’t the funniest the show has to offer, and yet it’s repeated twice. Repetition in playwriting, much like any other form of writing, is often employed to convey deeper meaning, but in playwriting, it has to especially mean something else if a character is going to “waste” one of their lines saying the same thing. The way that I am approaching the second time I play that line—the way in which I think Kelly intended for the actress to say it—is not by playing for laughs again on the stereotypical level, but by reaching for something that goes deeper than a trope, or a comedy. The way I hope to deliver the line will convey the fact that nobody ever tells me anything. And sometimes, that really hurts.
The same logic can be used to dissect any of the other characters in the show. Here is where I think Kelly displays his greatest strength, that he places three-dimensional characters in a two-dimensional world. Adding an extra layer of depth in a mold created to hold just so much slapstick, character, and content, adds an extra layer of humor: we simply don’t fit in with each other, and with our surroundings. This, I think, is where the play is funniest: where we are all trapped in the house and the confines of a murder mystery play, and have to find ways to blend melodrama, reality, and farce while staying true to the genre, and true to ourselves. The dichotomy brings out the worst in us as characters, but the best in the show as a whole. Nobody ever tells Fluff anything—but she understands her world better than she thinks.