UTL's “Don’t Drink the Water”: A Rather Disappointing Affair

Whenever planning a trip, I’m always approached by that know-it-all neighbor or friend with advice to bring this or that or to not do this or that. Oftentimes, I brush off these comments and insist on exploring the new place on my own. Then I drank the water in Thailand, and now I listen to every piece of advice people throw at me. Which brings me to the question: Why didn’t I listen to my friend who insisted on not going to dinner theater? To be fair, Under the Light’s production of Woody Allen's “Don’t Drink the Water” was not without strengths.

utlThe two act play is about a typical vacationing American family—complete with Hawaiian shirt, camera, and cultural insensitivity—mistaken for spies when Soviet police catch Walter Hollander (Dan Feblowitz), the father of the family, snapping photos of missiles at a military base. Walter, along with his wife Marion (Katherine Wernet) and daughter Susan (Cecily Keppel) run to the American embassy to seek asylum. There, they are confronted with Axel (Zeben Kopchak), the incompetent son of Ambassador Magee (David Pezzola), Kilroy (Amanda Sardis) the angry secretary, the even angrier chef (Naomi Bagdonas), and a strange magician priest, Father Drobney (Max Menke) who has lived at the embassy for the past six years. The family’s arrival is followed by an explosion of time bombs, elaborate escape plans, magic tricks, a bunny rabbit, romance, and guns, before the play ends with a rather conclusive bang.

Amidst the jamboree, Katherine Wernet’s and Max Menke’s acting stood out from the fray. Wernet was both annoying and charming--exactly how one would expect a suburban housewife who is past her prime and stuck in a foreign land. Menke’s portrayal of the crazy and eager-to-please priest was hilarious and believable. The comical scene where Marion grapples with Father Doheny who is stuck in a straight-jacket when a magic trick (a la Houdini) goes awry is physical comedy at its highest. Equally funny are the angry exchanges between the chef and Walter. Both Feblowitz and Bagdonas (this actress has impeccable timing) used the stage effectively—moving away to express dissonance, increasing tension by standing in each others’ faces, and pulling a rabbit out of the hat (quite literally) for maximum entertainment.

I would like to have seen the same chemistry between the lovebirds, Axel and Susan, but all I saw were stilted interactions. To their credit, the kissing scene was by far the most convincing of all UTL kissing I have seen before. Nevertheless, Keppel’s acting reminded me of Elisha Cuthbert’s in the first season of 24 (interpret that as you will) and Kopchak… well I think he was trying to portray a lost, incompetent diplomat, but all he seemed to be able to portray was a lost, incompetent actor. Misstating your lines is one thing, but to have difficulty suppressing your nervous laughter when doing so is simply unacceptable—especially if you have a significant role in the production.

As for the minor characters, most noteworthy is Krojack (Danielle Spencer), a NKVD officer. Spencer’s portrayal of an angry Russian witch is forceful and realistic—so much so that I could not help but wonder whether the actress was actually acting. Applause is also due to Solon Christensen-Szalanski for doing a stellar job as an officer and most notably, the wine-loving dignitary. Sure his part is small, yet he embodied his character and made the most out of his three lines. Perhaps Countess Bordoni (Divya Vishwanath) could have taken a leaf out her co-actor’s book and not have recited her lines so monotonously. Also, who was the costume designer? A purple jersey dress does not a black tie attire make. (Props, however, to Christensen-Szalanski’s three-piece suit and leather pants, and Wernet’s dress for the dinner party was perfect for her character.)

A combination of dull acting and true talent, of incidental and purposeful comedy, of bad and good accents, UTL’s performance, at the end of the night, was a most exasperating concoction. A few good actors did not overshadow for the poor performance of others. Perhaps “Don’t drink the water” is a wise piece of advice one can give to friends traveling to foreign terrains. Here’s my advice on viewing UTL plays: Don’t expect much. I left the Athenaeum slightly disappointed as I had seen better plays directed by Brendan Sasso. At the end of the night, did Wernet and Menke’s acting keep the play afloat? The answer is a resounding no.

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