It certainly speaks well of the writing when a topical play is still being performed nearly fifty years later; Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water opened in the fall of 1966 on Broadway, ran for a year and a half, and was made into feature films in 1969 and 1994. Now Don’t Drink the Water closes the forty-ninth season of the Licking County Players, a comedy that still holds up even though there are some references that will fly past anyone not above the age of sixty. But don’t let that scare younger people off; this stuff is funny!
Don’t Drink the Water is about an American embassy in a foreign land somewhere behind the “Iron Curtain” in the mid 1960s. Ambassador Magee (Richard Farmer) leaves his bumbling son Axel (Sam Driscoll) in charge, passing over his obviously more capable assistant, Miss Kilroy (Alison Gordon). Almost immediately an international incident occurs when a bumbling family of tourists from New Jersey, the Hollanders, trespass on and photograph a classified area and are chased by the Communist police headed by Krojack (Zac Marquart). The Hollanders seek asylum at the embassy until they can leave safely, creating havoc at every turn. The title Don’t Drink the Water is a warning often given to people traveling out of this country to certain foreign lands; in this case it is the foreign land that needed to be warned: “Don’t let in the stupid Americans!” No, not all Americans are as obnoxious as Walter Hollander (Chris Gordon), but enough are that we all can recognize and relate to having to deal with them.
As directed by Travis and Katie Kopp, most of the comedy of Woody Allen’s play lands just fine, though the pacing seems a little off; the first act clocks in at eighty minutes with enough pauses to be a detriment to the comedy. When the pace quickens the laughs also pick up from the audience, and this material demands a near breakneck pace to keep from falling apart.
Alexis McCullough’s set design is on pointe and notable especially for the size and perspective of the doors, altered to help create the illusion of depth in a limited space. Ms. McCullough also plays the small role of a drunken Countess Bordoni, a guest at the embassy. At the performance I attended she was perhaps a bit more method than usual, knocking over a table during her exit causing goblets to crash to the floor; Tom Ogilvie as Kasnar, her escort, was quick to ad lib, “Watch out for the table, dear,” a genuinely funny moment even though it was followed by an impromptu added scene of a maid sweeping up the glass so that the play could resume.
Three women in the cast are reason enough to see this production: Wendy Hartman as Susan Hollander, Cheryl Nelson as Marion Hollander, and Alison Gordon as Miss Kilroy. Ms. Hartman is vivacious as the youngest and least offensive of the Hollanders, and she is to be commended on her sterling costume design for the production, perfectly matching the period with patterns and fabrics nicely suited to the characters and setting. Ms. Nelson is slightly dotty in a lovable way as Marion, and quick to respond as well; her stage hubby told her to wear “snickers” instead of sneakers, and she exclaimed, “Snickers?!” It takes someone to be in the moment and committed like Ms. Nelson to turn an awkward moment like that around to get a laugh. Ms. Gordon wears spectacles, pumps, and knockoff Chanel like she’s dressed for battle as the ever efficient (yet accident-prone) Miss Kilroy; she has a good voice and stage presence for theatre.
Other standouts in the cast are PJ Gassman as Father Drobney, the Catholic priest living in the attic who practices magic and dreams of escape; Helen Lawrence as the chef, seemingly taking inspiration from the Swedish Chef on “The Muppet Show”; and Zac Marquart as thickly-accented Krojack, delightful as he barely contains his frustration with the Hollanders.
Some of the performances puzzled me, such as Sam Driscoll as Axel Magee and Chris Gordon as Walter Hollander. Mr. Driscoll has a curious habit of slightly mouthing the lines of the other actors, almost as if he was a ventriloquist and throwing his voice for everyone else in the cast. He has a kind of awkwardness that works for the character he’s playing, but I never felt like he was fully present. Mr. Gordon is appropriately all bluster and grouse as the most difficult Hollander, but his line readings were full of all kinds of strange pauses where they wouldn’t be ordinarily in life. Maybe he was trying to remember his lines, I don’t know, but it was very unnatural where his breaths would come in sentences, and he often would jumble words together. Still, neither Mr. Driscoll or Mr. Gordon wrecks the show; it’s just that their idiosyncrasies stood out in a mostly solid cast of players.
Of particular note is the quality of the sound, something I find quite inconsistent from theatre to theatre. I’m happy to report that technical director Eugene Haney does an excellent job of making sure everyone is heard, and I was impressed by the directional sound effects used for some key moments. Nothing is too loud or too quiet, a difficult balance to achieve. The only caveat is that there was an electronic buzzing sound that was coming from the extreme right at various points, sometimes disappearing entirely; it was at its worst just before the sound effect of an explosion when the white noise rose to such a level that I was worried that we were about to be blasted by feedback or distortion. We weren’t though, and the loud buzzing quickly disappeared after the sound effect played out.
This was my first time attending a performance by the Licking County Players in downtown Newark, an easy drive less than an hour outside Columbus. Within an unassuming brick building on West Main Street is a surprisingly cozy theatre with comfortable seats and a welcoming atmosphere. Even though the talent varied on stage for the performance I saw, it was comforting to see everyone working together to put on a show and tell a story. It’s obvious everyone is there for the love of theatre and live performance, so even the foibles weren’t enough to derail their efforts. The play was funny, I laughed, and I look forward to attending another show put on by this group.
**/ out of ****
Don’t Drink the Water continues through to August 23rd at 131 West Main Street in downtown Newark (less than an hour from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.lickingcountyplayers.org/#!dont-drink-the-water/cscb