by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
What happens when two over-privileged adult children throw a birthday party for their wealthy father? This is the premise of Crashing the Party, a new play by Josh Tobiessen that wonders whether the tenacity needed to achieve the “American Dream” can be passed from one generation to another. Once one generation has pulled itself up by its proverbial boot-straps, what does this generation leave to its children and grandchildren? While conventional wisdom insists that one generation’s success can only benefit its offspring, Tobiessen suggests that this inheritance robs subsequent generations of the opportunity to create something from scratch, or to make something of themselves. In its world premiere at the Mixed Blood Theatre, Crashing the Party approaches this question with a comic sensibility that blends the conventionality of a sitcom with the unpredictability of a sketch. Unfortunately, while this blend results in a show that is at times laugh-out-loud funny, the mix of styles also contributes to the muddled take the play offers on its timely themes of inherited wealth and corporate greed.
It’s not that, as a rule, comedic genres can’t be mixed. But the comedic parts of Crashing the Party don’t complement each other, they clash. The play wants to inspire genuine interest in its characters and their relationships, but the zaniness of the plot doesn’t allow these characters the space to develop. Although many of the plot twists are quite funny, their increasingly ridiculous quality undercuts the possibility for the affection expressed between the characters to be at all convincing. As a result, the more tender moments, which might themselves have been poignantly funny, come across instead as sentimental cliches that in turn work against the play’s goofiness.
Despite these problems with the play’s overall tone and large portions of its script, Crashing the Party still manages to get huge laughs. Why? Because its strength lies in its sheer physicality, rather than in its attempt to provide an amusing take on questions of upward mobility and successful parenting. Director Sarah Rasmussen arranges the cast and their bizarre barrage of props in a way that maximizes their comedic potential. Many of the actors clearly have a lot of physical comedy to offer. Rolando Martinez is great as Arthur, the man-child who still lives with his parents and whose highest ambition seems to be staying in his pajamas for as long as possible. Mo Perry and Ansa Akykea are also quite funny as, respectively, an FBI agent and local police officer. (I can’t explain what they’re doing in this scenario without giving too much away.) Laura Esposito contorts her body hilariously to play Eleanor, the super-sexy and super-nerdy secretary to Mr. Martin (Joe Minjares), the family patriarch and CEO of a company he built from nothing. Sally Wingert also has some funny moments in her role as Mrs. Martin, a housewife who busies herself with charity work and spoiling her grown offspring. If a reality show called “Real Housewives of Minneapolis” existed in this fictional world, Wingert’s character certainly would be a featured personality. Costume designer Moria Sine Clinton embellishes the actors’ physical comedy with wry details such as Mrs. Martin’s bright blue sneakers, and Eleanor’s ridiculously-high heels.
It’s clear that the cast does its best, but it’s too bad that their efforts weren’t used in the service of a play that had more to say about wealth, greed, and social advancement. Crashing the Party’s premise certainly promises a romp that captured some of our current zeitgeist. Who wouldn’t want to poke fun at a wealthy family’s foibles in the throes of the Great Recession? And yet, it ultimately misses the mark by presenting decidedly mixed messages about the consequences of this particular family’s actions. By trying to both ridicule and admire the Martins, Crashing the Party falls short of trenchant social critique. It’s possible, however, that despite the timely and compelling subject matter, the goal of this show is not to provide entertaining critique, but simply to entertain. And if the huge laughs it provokes are any indication, it succeeds.
Crashing the Party, by Josh Tobiessen and directed by Sarah Rasmussen. February 10-March 4, 2012. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 South Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55455. Tickets: Free, under Mixed Blood’s “Radical Hospitality” program. Or $15 with reservation. Box office: 612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.