“Life is Gouda!”

Sign inside the Barrington home

This show is the wildest, funniest time I’ve had in a long while. From beginning to end, I laughed harder than I had in months. I think I cracked a rib or two. Anyways, Drop Dead! will have you laughing until you can’t anymore. Written by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore and directed by Van Zandt, this show has several different characters looking for a plotline. Something to keep them together as they go at it without cracking themselves up.

It’s a play within a play that isn’t easy to do. However, done right it could be the most hilarious experience as a theatergoer. Drop Dead! gets it right. After the over-the-top music, signaling danger plays on, the semi-serious butler Drools (great debut by Eddie Liu) pops out. As the “actor” Chaz Looney, Drools reads his script from the bottom of a silver dish. Alexander Barrington (the hysterical Brent Reynolds) performs several hysterical soliloquies about snow. He soon is followed by “actor” Dick Scorsese, who plays Inspector Mounds, (Mark Vazquez does a hell of job) from Scotland Yard to investigate the death of Lord Barrington, Alexander and Bette’s father.  As the “actress” Bette, Claudine Claudio plays her to the hilt with arrogance, humor and a lot posing with spins and turns. She holds her long, slim cigarette holder like a second appendage and isn’t afraid to strike someone with it. Barrington’s self-portrait is strategically hung over the fireplace almost surveying the room with his suspicious eyes.

It does not help that he resembles the Uncle Ben picture on the box of rice with white hair, moustache and side burns and a bulbous shaped nose like the actor W.C. Fields. Poor Alex has so many things against him.  For one, the poor dear cannot recall his wife’s name, which is Penelope. “Actress” Candy Apples (beautifully and comically played by Shelly Hacco) is called everything starting with the letter “P,” Popo or Penny Marshall or Pennsylvania, except her given name, Penelope.

Everyone is waiting on Lady Barrington played with zeal by “actress” Constance Crawford who is hard of hearing. The actual actress Mews Small shows she’s having a good time playing a wealthy woman from back in the day to a loving kook. How can you not like someone like her? Inspector Mounds keeps calling out to her until finally she appears wondering what the the hell the fuss is all about. The director Victor Le Pewe (the talented Cy Creamer) is ready to have a coronary because no one is doing what they are paid, though miserly, to do.  If that isn’t enough the investor P.G. “Piggy” Banks (Barry Brisco is hella funny).  The cigar-chomping backer isn’t too thrilled with Victor’s direction because it’s costing him big time.

The inspector tries to find out who and how “actor” Hal Holtz and Lord Barrington were killed. Just as Inspector Mounds tells everyone who did it, poof! the lights go out and the inspector is found dead on the floor with a dagger in his chest. Le Pewe is probably wondering how this will affect ticket prices.

What makes this show work is that everyone has their own time to shine. From the butler and his trusty silver platter to Alexander’s fascination in saying the word “snow” in such an exaggerated manner or calling his wife, Penelope, by other names.  Everyone gets their shot to do their thing and do it remarkably well.  A wonderful surprise is when the writer makes an appearance. Yes, audience there is a writer. Alabama Miller (superbly played by Grey Rodriguez) is overwhelmed, frustrated and just plain tired of these actors destryoing his prized possession. His translaton gets lost in the madness of unnecessary changes. When he first started the play, it was 576 pages trimmed down to 18 pages. He leaves early in a convulted haze of rewrites and “helpful suggestions” from others.

Another person trapped in the creative asylum is Philip the harried production assistant perfectly played by Timothy Alonzo. The cast puts this boy in too many difficult predicaments to difficult to escape. With a smile and infectious laughter, he never loses it. God save the PA!!

Drop Dead! plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Theatre 68 located inside the NoHo Arts center located at 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.  For ticket information, call (323) 960-5068 or reserve online at www.plays411.com/dropdead

5 minutes/5 questions with writer and director Billy Van Zandt

MEM:   Where did you get the idea for this crazy, funny story?

BVZ:     Working in the theater all these years.  Most everything that occurs in this show (aside from the murders) I’ve either seen or heard in my past.  Most is exaggerated, of course.  But not everything.

 MEM: Did you grow up watching murder mysteries? If yes, which ones?

 BVZ:  I love a good murder mystery.  When I was a kid I used to read all the Agatha Christies one right after the other.  But our show’s more farce than an actual murder mystery.  It’s more a comment on actor’s egos.  Nothing gets in the way of MY performance!

MEM: Are you hoping to turn this show into a movie feature?

BVZ:  I’ve never thought about it.  Our plays have wonderful international lives around the globe, and I’m usually focused on the theater.  But it would make a fun movie, wouldn’t it?

MEM:  Absolutely! Any plans on adding more story or is this where you plan to stop?

 BVZ:  This play was written and produced Off-Broadway in 1985.  We tweaked it a little when we did it in LA in 1991.  And again for this production at Theatre 68.  But, no.  It’s done.

MEM: How is it working with a partner versus going at it solo?

BVZ:  I’ve done both.  I like both.  I’ve had a partner for over thirty years.   It is much nicer when you can bounce something off someone.  When you work alone, there’s no one to blame but yourself.

For more on Billy and his mad genius productions, log on to  www.vanzandtmilmore.com or www.youvegothatemail.com