“Molly’s Delicious” represents the inaugural production for the Group at Strasberg, an inhouse company at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center. According to its producer — the late acting teacher’s son, David Lee Strasberg — this new incarnation of the Group is dedicated to producing new works from “our bravest young theater artists.” Based on that criterion, Craig Wright’s play, originally mounted in Philadelphia in 1997, seems an odd choice. Crisp performances and some tart charm make this piece likably engaging for the first act, but overall this is a play that’s not yet ripe, yet alone brave. Still, while the play is ultimately tepid, the trappings are fine indeed.
Craig Siebels’ set, in the newly restored Marilyn Monroe Theater, places us directly into a middle America of which Norman Rockwell would be proud. We’re in the Minnesota yard of “Lindy” and Cindy Linda, which Lindy (John Apicella) has transformed into an apple orchard. Bushels of apples sit everywhere — the trees have borne fruit at an unexpected rate, and the Lindas are trying hard to give away their bounty.
This isn’t the only mark of fertility in this 1965 landscape: The Lindas are being visited by their niece from Connecticut, a 17-year-old maverick named Alison (Christy Keefe), pregnant by a Coast Guard sailor who doesn’t return her letters.
Wright wastes no time in peppering the superficial innocence of this environment with gossip and innuendo, and before long, the adults are meddling in Alison’s life.
Cindy (Maryedith Burrell) brings in young Alec Willoughby (Scott Venters), the son of the local mortician, hoping he’ll take Alison’s mind off the absentee sailor, Jerry. But this only complicates matters when, just as Alison is falling for Alec, Jerry (Jeremy Kent Jackson) shows up, ready to get married before he ships off to Vietnam.
So far, so good. The first act is really very appealing, and Dan Fields has directed it with a nicely stylized flair, as if it were a musical romantic comedy. Wright’s dialogue is filled with a “Fargo”-like twang that’s fun to listen to, and the long scene between Keefe and Venters gives two young performers a chance to shine.
Thematically, the sense of an impending loss of innocence is pervasive, from naive notions of the far-away war to the metaphor of eating apples — the very symbol of humanity giving in to temptation and being evicted from innocent Eden. It feels like Wright might be capable of surprising us.
In the second half, though, we begin to see Wright manipulating the strings, and the hope of surprise dissipates rapidly.
Where the first act had a brisk pace to it, the second gives way to a much more stagnant, and contrived, dramaturgy, with characters staring at the stars, talking about being on a “ledge,” about to enter a new era.
It’s all obvious and pretty charmless, and much of Wright’s wittier plot strains — trying to sell the apples to the nascent NASA for use in space exploration, the quibbles between Lindy and Cindy — turn out to be loose ends.
The performances here are strong enough to keep the production from becoming tedious, though. The whole cast is excellent, although Scott Venters delivers the most fully realized performance.
In fact, Venters is so perfectly cast and so pleasing as the smitten mortician with dreams of his own that it’s hard not to root for Alec over the far less romantic Jerry, throwing off some of Wright’s efforts at an imaginative happy ending.