Thursday, May 23, 2024

Theater Review: “#Unhappy Hour” at Coral Springs Center

Here, finally, is a new spin on an increasing—and increasingly uniform—theater trend: the collection of 10-minute(ish) shorts written by different playwrights. You’ve seen this before, if you’ve ever attended City Theatre’s “Summer Shorts,” or Island City Stage and City Theatre’s “Shorts Gone Wild,” or The Naked Stage’s “24-Hour Theater Project,” but you’ve never seen it quite like this.

Instead of a succession of clearly attributed shorts following each other in a linear fashion, “#Unhappy Hour” is structured like a continuous two-act play set in a South Florida dive bar. The individual plays mingle with each other like guests at a cocktail party, disappearing into the whole. They are never identified except in the playbill, and if you didn’t already know that the project was conceived by five playwrights, you’d never guess. It’s a truly egalitarian way to conceive an omnibus play, and Mark Della Ventura and Gabriel Hammad, who developed the idea, should be applauded for re-imagining the familiar. Whether it works is another story.

Staged in the redesigned, cabaret-style second-floor black box at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, the plays in “#Unhappy Hour” are contextualized through the perspective of bartenders and best friends Charlie (Hammad) and Claire (Raquel Montesino) as they dance around their obvious attraction to each other over the course of a memorable night at the watering hole. Della Ventura and Hammad scripted these exchanges, which seem to encompass almost half the play; generally, the rest of show, focusing on the oddballs, loonies, mopers, drunks, deviants and extraterrestrials who frequent the bar’s tables, was a joint effort by Della Ventura, Hammad, David Sirois, Gladys Ramirez and Meera Paul. The structure is not unlike a Florida-centric “Clerks,” in which the ostensibly normal people behind the counter endure a revolving door of uncouth customers and quirky outcasts—most of them defined by the trademark sense of Millennial angst that Sirois and Della Ventura have infused previous award-winning works.

Unfortunately, the imaginative structure is a double-edged sword. By subsuming the individual plays into one seamless entity, “#Unhappy Hour” squelches distinction and structural cogency in favor of anonymity and fluidity. Without beginnings, middles and ends, scenes tend to flounder, as concepts only partially realized. These include a pair of would-be criminals planning a heist at a sperm bank (Devin Iovelli and Persi Caputo), a pair of bro-tastic nihilists with women problems (Iovelli and Vincent Baierlein), and a stoic Man in Black in search of a renegade government agent (Alexander Ellwood and Kurtis Huntsinger, respectively). The one play that seems most fleshed-out, Hammad’s “A Bad Night for Brad Knight,” is a sour exercise in masochistic futility, as Huntsinger’s title character suffers a humorless procession of indignities.

Other characters are cut from cloths too broad for the playwrights’ usual command of nuance, such as Persi’s fiery Latina stereotype; Baierlein’s overacted performance as Claire’s drunken douchebag of a boyfriend; and Roxanne Lamendola’s bimbo bar server, dopily mystified by the concept of “blackened dolphin fingers.” (The character is usually played by Ananga Pigna, who was in hospital for the opening weekend).

There are more unlikable characters in “#Unhappy Hour” than likeable ones, and the actors, many of them still green and bushy-tailed, don’t manage to humanize them enough in their minimal stage time. Montesino and Hammad share the most realistic chemistry, but even their interactions tend to feel rushed; they anticipate their partner’s lines rather than react to them naturally. More tightly calibrated direction from Della Ventura and Hammad (and, surely, more rehearsals) would have improved the pacing.

Nice touches around the plays’ edges include a fairly realistic bar design (though a few scuffs on the pristine walls would have added character), a live stream of ambient music from South Florida’s alternative-rock station The Shark (which often seems to supply the perfect song for the perfect emotional moment in the show), and a number of well-timed, site-specific barbs at the den of depravity that is the Sunshine State.

Yet, as youthful and mold-breaking and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny as it is, “#Unhappy Hour” shares a problem with plenty of more conventional plays—a disparity of people to care about and root for. Without them, we’re like so many disaffected barflies, awaiting our next half-priced Bud Lite Lime.

“#Unhappy Hour” runs through Jan. 24 at Coral Springs Center for the Arts, 2855 Coral Springs Drive. Tickets cost $39.22. Call 954-344-5990 or visit coralspringscenterforthearts.com

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