The good old days?
While We Were Bowling
The 1950s were never as tidy as the idealized version that was depicted in the TV comedies of the time. And bowling was never as “all-American” as its popular image, though bowling was hugely popular among Japanese-Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s, right after they returned from World War II internment.
Carter W. Lewis’ sentimental—but not sticky-sweet—comedy delights in contrasting quick, flickering snippets of pop-culture icons (I Love Lucy and The Jack Benny Show) with funny, altogether different situations onstage. The play demonstrates that real life was never really like TV, anyway.
The idealized family comes in for a crazy overhaul. Dad’s haunted, Mom drinks, the teenage daughter shacks up with a loser 10 years her senior, and the son copes with his homosexuality by studying for the priesthood. And when a cute black kid delivers a new TV, he ends up joining the household, despite the disapproval of Dad and society. (This plot strand is almost stolen out of Ragtime. However, it’s been adapted for a hip, retro comedy rather than dramatic musical theater.)
Buck Busfield’s production is sharp as a tack, in part because he’s brought together cast members who are largely familiar with his nimble directing style and are almost uniquely suited to their respective roles. Julia Brothers is the play’s central powerhouse, as the “mom struggling with demons, while holding the disintegrating family together” (as she was in the earlier B Street production Off The Map). Greg Alexander, master of the comic supporting role, is the quirky dad who fears communism (but makes sure his kids learn Russian, just in case). John Lamb, a veteran of many smaller B Street parts, gives his best performance in years, as the conflicted 16-year-old son. It’s excellent work.
Dana Brooke grows from a loud, bratty teen into a quieter, sadder adult. She also serves as the narrator who frames the piece, and she does the job well (despite some bobbled lines the opening night). Kurt Johnson, who’s chunkier in a T-shirt than he used to be, is just right as the trouble-prone, goodhearted working-class guy for whom the daughter falls.
Newcomer Jarrad Skinner looks 14 but apparently is 23. He plays the black kid, who serves as a comic reminder that in 1957, racial separation was pretty much the American norm, and not just in the South. (When Mom bowls on the night that black folks are invited to use the lanes, she gets a rude reception.) In years past, any reference to race was rare in B Street shows. It’s a positive development that the theater is now dealing more directly with this part of American life.