Stephen Bittrich's Home of the Great Pecan is the most delightful new comedy I've seen in a long while. Under the expert and simpatico direction of Hamilton Clancy, at The Drilling Company's intimate Upper West Side theatre, Bittrich's play spins an outlandish tale of UFOs and romance in a small Texas town.
At the center of this madcap story is Tammie Lynn Schneider. She's been engaged to Greeley Green for nearly two years now, but she's starting to hear rumors (from her best friend Rosy and from her employer, beauty parlor owner Sonja) that Greeley is unfaithful. Is he letting women drive his truck—the truck he cherishes above all else in the world—in hopes of getting something in return from them? Tammy wants to get married, and she wants Greeley to pay more attention to her than to the darn truck. Oh, and she thinks—well, she knows—she saw a UFO recently.
Meanwhile, Rosy is suddenly being wooed by the town's hyper-charismatic and hyper-hypocritical preacher, Reverend Pat. Young Priscilla Rottweiler is obsessed with being this year's Pecan Queen at the town's annual parade/shindig. And Sheriff Bart and his brand new deputy, Diggity, are trying to solve a huge crime: the town's crown jewel, so the speak—a giant pecan made of concrete weighing a quarter of a ton—has been stolen.
At first glance, you might think that Bittrich has gathered all these larger-than-life, dizzyingly archetypal characters merely to trot them out for their own sake. And he'd certainly be giving his audience a grand time if that were all he had in mind, not to mention the delicious romp he's providing for his more than capable cast. But there's more here than surface: every one of the balls Bittrich is juggling at his outrageous act one curtain gets caught neatly by the finale an hour later. No loose ends, no quick saves. And there's even a message or two to take home and savor.
I loved spending time with these folks. In addition to the ones I've mentioned, there's Ed, Greeley's best friend, who delivers an unexpectedly articulate speech about the nature of religion, seemingly out of nowhere. There's Francio, the gay Mexican kid who likes to hang out at Sonja's parlor (she's the only one in town who seems to actually understand him); and there's Chucky Connors, an angry young man whose family has just moved to Texas from up North, who is chided as a "homo" because he has an earring and who is immediately the first suspect when the big pecan goes missing. And there's Les, the clueless hardware store proprietor, who, when Chucky asks to buy some fertilizer because he's making a bomb, helpfully offers to sell him a load of dynamite instead.
Clancy lets his cast have free rein with their over-the-top characters, but everything in this production is of a piece, and no one pushes too hard or ramps up the nuttiness too much. In Act One, I most enjoyed the heightened self-involvement of Amanda Dillard's Priscilla (practicing her acceptance speech in the bathroom) and the on-target Southern Preacher caricature created by Scott Baker as Reverend Pat. But in Act Two, as the plot really started coalescing in a most satisfying way, I started to appreciate the less showy, utterly grounded, yet totally off-the-wall antics of Jessi Blue Gormezano (Tammie), Veronica Cruz (Sonja), and Bill Green (Sheriff Bart). And through it all, Drilling Company stalwarts Dave Marantz and Dan Teachout, as Greeley and Ed respectively, provide a kind of glue holding the whole shebang together. (Kudos, too, to Jared Benn as Les, Brandon Reilly as Chucky, and Steve Sherman as Diggity, all of whom bring their characters to especially vivid life.)
I hate to say much more lest I give away some of Bittrich's rich surprises, and it would be terrible if I did that. Let me just say that the thing whips itself up to a frenzy by the climax of Act Two where a kind of surrealism trumps, well, everything you thought you were expecting.
Most of the theatre I've seen so far in 2011 has been super-serious, so Home of the Great Pecan, which is loaded with laughs, is particularly welcome right now. Check it out: I think you'll have a good time.