nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 10, 2013
A scene from Petunia
How do you kill someone who’s already dead—and should you?
At the start of the “garage musical” Petunia, the title character—a red-haired, aging woman in flowery housecoat—is still alive, burying her cat Whiskers. Her husband Buddy lazes on the couch, playing solitaire. As the kitchen faucet drip, drip, drips (accented with drumbeat), Petunia yells, “YOU THINK YOU’D HELP ME FIX THE SINK OR SOMETHING!” Buddy counters, “It’s always something.”
Suddenly the woman staggers and keels over. Buddy examines her: “She’s dead!” A smile breaks on his face. “She’s dead!” As newly-freed Buddy cuts open the refrigerator lock and pigs out on junk food, and swings between elation and depression, his relatives pour in with sympathy and criticism. His mother takes one of Petunia’s flowers, an “Amares Amore”—meaning “bitter love”—and plants it on the grave. Visiting the gravesite, Buddy is compelled to dig up the flower and take it home—and Petunia’s faultfinding spirit tags along with it.
Written by John Levy (book, lyrics, and music) and directed by Nicholas Minas, Petunia is a hilarious, engaging rock musical—rock-operatic at times—exploring family dynamics, particularly how family patterns repeat from generation to generation. The musical also delves into the love/hate dichotomy, how we want both to hold onto and get rid of people.
Threatening to repeat Buddy’s wimpy ways is his son Ralph, whose very pregnant wife Becky—also red-haired—pushes to purchase a house before her baby is born. Petunia had promised the couple money, but Buddy, suspecting that Ralph would prefer a simple apartment, won’t fork over the cash. Meanwhile, the very Hispanic Detective Fernando and his African-American partner Detective James inform Buddy that poison was found in Petunia’s bloodstream. Buddy’s sister Vivian—who badgers her husband Herb—and mother Millie, who loves her liquor, fear Buddy is losing his mind talking to a houseplant. Tired of the posthumous nitpicking, Buddy offers to give Ralph the down payment if he “takes care of” the Amares Amore. Ralph balks, not wanting to nurture the flower, but Buddy clarifies his meaning, “slicing” his throat: “Take care of her!” But is it so easy to get rid of Petunia?
The music features good choral work and is punctuated with lively choreography by Enrique Brown. The songs contain funny lines such as, “His friends and neighbors brought him food/He he ate and drank it in the nude, ” “I’ll wash some Rolaids down with beer,” and “When the cat moves out/The mice move in,” the last a refrain danced by Buddy and the two cops. Sylvia Grieser’s notable costume designs include Buddy’s ever-present undershirt and pajama bottoms and Petunia’s sometimes classy, sometimes frumpy, oft-flowery outfits.
It’s good, and rare, to see a FringeNYC show peopled by so many middle-aged or elderly characters. Louisa Flaningam as Petunia has a throaty contralto and excellently plays the exasperated wife who wishes she could still respect her husband. Ira Denmark’s Buddy, strong in the lead role, is properly depressed, frustrated, and longing for better. Allison McKay is hilarious as the alcoholic Millie, at one point accidentally blessing her son from a vial full of bourbon. Ruthie Stevens is oh-so-bitchy as the nag-to-be Becky. Rounding out this funny cast are Sean Gorski (Ralph), Lisa McMillan (Aunt Vivian), William Mulligan (Uncle Herb/Guy Little), Enrique Acevedo (Det. Fernando) and Tyrone L. Robinson (Det. James).
I’d imagined a different ending, and I wonder if the director needs to emphasize the foreshadowing. Also, although the “Amares Amore”—a deadly bloom created for this play—does its symbolic duty, I felt a little disappointed that the deceased Petunia wasn’t supplanted (pun intended) by her namesake flower.
Those issues aside, Petunia is a lively musical which deftly explores themes of “bitter love” and the persistence of destructive family patterns.