Over the past six years, the B Street Theatre has been the success story on the local arts scene, gathering accolades (including awards from SN&R readers), while its subscriber base has grown steadily—moving well ahead of the Sacramento Theatre Company’s. Actors (and even other directors) speak enviously of B Street’s producing director Buck Busfield’s savvy grasp of the market.
But success—like anything else in life—comes at a price. And in this case, the trade-off for prosperity seems to be a steady retreat from the kind of edgy, ambitious plays that originally earned the B Street its considerable reputation. That reputation is still out there, but the reality is that the B Street has come to rely more and more on formula comedies with a romantic twist. And while these plays are invariably mounted in an attractive manner with talented actors (and do quite nicely at the box office—no small concern), the fact is that in artistic terms, they aren’t very challenging or innovative—the two characteristics that put the B Street on the map in the first place.
Exhibit A opened at the B Street on Sunday night. It’s a play called Drinking Alone by Norm Foster—a Canadian who has a flair for producing friendly, domestic comedies. Those who have seen Foster’s plays before (this is the fourth to be featured at the B Street) know what to expect. It isn’t bad. Foster is not a magician with the English language, but he knows how to construct funny dialogues, and how to use repetition to get laughs. He’s a craftsman, not a poet. And he doesn’t dodge the dark side of life; he just seems to have a knack for finding happy endings.
Drinking Alone involves a tyrannical, emotionally distant father whose first wife became addicted to alcohol. It’s been 15 years since she drank herself to death, their kids have grown up and the old man’s remarried. But they’re still working out what went wrong with the marriage, and who let whom down. If it sounds a little like Eugene O’Neill, it should, except that it’s all been recast in a lighter vein, with an element of boy-gets-girl tagged onto the largely sunny ending, the elements of which can be seen emerging from a mile off. And it’s almost precisely two hours long. (It’s tempting, if not entirely fair, to sarcastically describe the play as “Long Day’s Journey Lite.”)
As with most B Street shows, it’s beautifully cast. Several regulars (Kurt Johnson, Julia Brothers, Julianne Somers) are back in roles that fit them like gloves, while newcomers Jessa Brie Berkner and Harold Smith look like keepers. John Lamb, in his second directing assignment with the company, keeps things on course. And together, they make the play feel more substantial than it actually is. But even with the appealing presentation, one can’t get around the sense that the script might be better described as “safe and sane” rather than “dazzling” or “exciting.”
Summary: it’s not what you’d call memorable, but it’s a long way from being a flop. Mostly it’s a matter of resting a little too comfortably on the laurels.
It’ll do. But oh, for the old days, when the B Street was pushing the envelope and aiming higher!