By John Quinn
Now for something completely different, Planet Ant Theatre hosts two episodes of the Detroit Broadcasting Company’s “Lambert Street,” a proposed Internet-based, TV sitcom. The writing team of Annette Barbara Walowicz, Aaron Thomas Timlin, Jaclyn Strez and Derell Edward Jones hope to create a 10-episode season. Strez, winner of the 2012 Box Fest – the annual showcase for women directors – has chosen to give the material a small stage preview before its small screen debut.
Situation comedy predates television, but the genre has been a staple of the medium from the very beginning. Many of the most successful were helmed by producer Norman Lear, who boldly used the sitcom format to address social issues. Indeed, the creators of “Lambert Street” are inspired by shows like “All in the Family.” Director Strez hopes the series “will provide a comedic, yet heartfelt look at Detroit’s future, present and past using the backdrop of an ordinary city street and its residents.”
After losing his copywriting job in Chicago, young David Alter (Ted Neda) returns to his parents’ home in suburban Detroit. Upon the death of his maternal grandfather, David is inspired to move in with Grandmother Eleanor (Kennikki Jones-Jones), much to the chagrin of his mother (Jessica Care Moore). A successful professional, Jacqueline wants nothing more to do with the core city. She’d much rather Mother leave the homestead and move in with her. Remarkably, it’s David’s absent-minded professor of a father (Matthias John Schneider) who casts the deciding vote.
What’s the hook? David is biracial. The move from suburbs to city is a quest for identity. Is it time to “go black,” as his life-long friend, Deandre (Robert “7ven” Shannon III) wants? Well, he meets two lovely women, the gentrifying Maggie Prabilowicz (Bethany Hedden) and an African-American professional, Chelsea Smith (Torri Lynn Ashford), who seems to have been cast in the same mold as his mother. Does David have to pick a side? Or can he proclaim, like the philosopher Popeye the Sailor, “I yam what I yam?”
On U. S. television, eight minutes of every half hour is eaten up by a word from our sponsor. To successfully present a situation and resolve it satisfactorily in the remaining time, the writing must be razor-sharp or the plot really shallow. Here plot is crowded out by character development. Unfortunately, most of those characters are Ghosts of Sitcoms Past. Gil McRipley’s entrance immediately conjured the image of Whitman Mayo’s character, Grady Wilson, from the Norman Lear/Bud Yorkin series “Sanford and Son.” It wasn’t long before it was clear that Alvin “Dupree” Washington is a variation on a theme. The bright light, and the foundation on which this project can build, is its very original character, David Alter. Ted Neda infuses a relentless enthusiasm into the role, and David’s child-like approach in the conflicts of self-discovery has real potential for plot development.
To state the obvious, television and theater have different aesthetics. Review “Lambert Street” as a two-scene one act rather than two TV episodes, and the performances seem rather flat. Strez has chosen a more realistic, theatrical reading than is the norm for television work, yet broader, more emphatic line deliveries would help sell the comedy, even in the cozy confines of Planet Ant. No one wants another “Married with Children,” but a happy medium exists.
A shout out to young DeVaughn Cone, the last cast member with whom we become acquainted. In the role of LaJuan Perkins, whose errant baseball breaks Eleanor’s window, we really didn’t get to see enough of him; his character has the potential to be much more than just another “kid down the street.” Wouldn’t you like to look back in 15 years and say, “DeVaughn Cone? I saw him in his first play!”
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 2, plus Tuesday, Jan. 29. 1 hour; no intermission. $10. 313-365-4948. http://www.PlanetAnt.com