Stuart Bousel's play, Everybody Here ... Says Hello!, might sound like an insubstantial, dishy comedy — it's about a bisexual drag performer-qua-aspiring actor with a boyfriend and a girlfriend — but it excels by that benchmark and much more challenging ones.
Bousel is a superhumanly prolific playwright, director, producer, and blogger in the S.F. indie theater scene, as well as SF Weekly's Best Ringmaster of Bay Area Theater in 2013. Bousel's plays are always chock-full of hyper-articulate characters (much like the playwright himself), and with Everybody Here...Says Hello!, produced in rep by Wily West Productions with the team-written Superheroes, these wits are at their best. Bousel, working with director Rik Lopes, has constructed a zippy but masterfully layered and paced dramedy. Every zesty punch line helps make full human beings out of characters who sometimes have only a couple minutes of stage time; every bit of narrated backstory has the juiciness of scandalous gossip but also the full weight of the unique power of live performance.
Though narration and theater are usually mortal enemies, this play is so well-crafted that narration — specifically, rotating narration: each member of this gang of young misfits gets a turn framing the proceedings — is actually a huge part of the show's success. Bousel introduces the device right away. "This is my boyfriend," begins Patrick (Nick Trengrove), referring to Bryon (Dan Kurtz), who plays baseball with his friends, whom Patrick calls "well-adjusted straight people." He says of Bryon, "I'm trying to decide if I love him or not." Enter Rebecca (Mikka Bonel, superb as an offbeat cynic), who seems even more out of place in her fling with boorish Toro (Tony Cirimele). As Patrick and Rebecca bond over affection for disarmingly frank jibes and mutual dislike for baseball, narration not only supplies the perfect amount of backstory, it continually complicates the play's genre, spiking meet-cute moments lending gravitas to more comedic ones.
It's a credit to Lopes' direction that lines such as, "I could try being with both of you," sound not just credible but like deeply heartfelt, revolutionary ideas born out of an overabundance of love and curiosity. These surprising moments, where the banal suddenly takes on great heft, elevate this play from mere successful rom-com to a fresh, unsentimental look at contemporary relationships.
This production is at the Exit, the Tenderloin venue with four different stages, which for decades has served a vital role as the go-to spot for the young and hungry to produce their new acts. One of the best things about seeing a show there (especially at the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival which starts next month, but also at any time of year) is the excitement bred from multiple shows happening in the same space, with an on-site bar. Where else in the city can you reliably bump into a friend who's just seen a different show and then talk about theater over drinks?
Now playing across the hall from Everybody Here ... Says Hello! is Thunderbird Theatre Company's Show Down! This comedy, about a single day of travails at K.R.A.P., a perfectly ridiculous television network, was written in television-style by four writers: Claire Rice, Christine McClintock, Bryce Allemann, and Kathy Hicks. Unfortunately, in this case, that approach ends with the scattered result of too many characters. Among numerous other plot lines, there are a preposterous competition for network control between tight-laced Beth (Megan Briggs) and mustache-twirling villain Commodore (Matt Gunnison, excellent in milking his role's cartoonishness for all it's worth); a love rectangle whose every plot point is illustrated with another play of Tchaikovsky's "Love Theme" from Romeo and Juliet; a series of kale-related commercials that, confusingly, play both when the network is airing a program and when it isn't; and a completely unnecessary time travel escapade.
Neal Higgins's direction doesn't help matters. Too often scene partners miss their punch lines or stand inert, side by side, as if there were no third dimension in which to move. While the show does build toward an uproarious climax, with an extensive and rapid-fire tour through the foibles of modern television, as fast and jarring as real channel-surfing, the rest of the show saps the scene's energy.
One of the funniest moments of the performance I attended was when a scenic element three times failed to work; audience laughter came not from schadenfreude but from sympathy for the brave and merry troupe with whom we were sharing an evening. That's the Exit at its finest: serendipity and good will.