Serious Inquiries Only

The play "Serious Inquiries Only" would be much more rewarding if only it made some serious inquiries of its own.

With:
Matthew - Jeff Allin Margaret - Kathryn Joosten Mandy - Nicholle Tom Melissa - Ann Gillespie Miranda - Andrea Procter Rick - Corey Nelson

The play “Serious Inquiries Only” would be much more rewarding if only it made some serious inquiries of its own. Instead, this story of a man in the midst of a midlife crisis gives way before it even gets going, and playwright-director D. Paul Thomas, whose 1999 work “The Presentment” premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse, allows the play to be dominated by the waspy grandma’s comments about her bowel movements and the mentally challenged daughter’s simple, sentimental and exceedingly obvious epithets. Thomas seems to have become so enamored of these cheap dramaturgical distractions that he’s ended up with a pseudo-drama that’s primarily a series of comic relief moments without anything to relieve us from the comic relief.

Jeff Allin plays Matthew Tyler, publisher of his family’s newspaper in rural Indiana, a locale nicely communicated in Jeff Crye’s set design, which depicts the outside farmland on the interior walls of the house. Matt has recently undergone an electoral drubbing in the race for state assembly; while he won’t admit it, he’s obviously demoralized, tired of being a lone liberal voice in this metaphorical desert of ultraconservatism. He’s so out of step with the locals that even his own septuagenarian mother, Margaret (Kathryn Joosten), didn’t vote for him.

As a means of escape, Matt places an ad seeking to swap homes for the summer with a family in Europe; he receives a number of “serious inquiries.” He also gets an offer to buy the newspaper. Thomas seems to be putting together a play about Matt’s effort to redefine his life or, perhaps, a play about his need to come to terms with all his unmet expectations. He’s going to be confronted, apparently, with essential decisions about who he is and where he’s going to take himself and his family. Or, well … something. We never know, because this is where the distractions begin and the inquiring, serious or otherwise, pretty much ceases.

At first, the distractions are welcome, because Matt, like lots of characters in the midst of self-involved self-evaluation, can be unpleasant company, whiny and dull, a fact acknowledged by even his too-perfect, extremely tolerant wife, Melissa (Ann Gillespie). Margaret’s constipation is certainly much more amusing, and Joosten’s ace timing makes that even truer.

Nicholle Tom (“The Nanny”), meanwhile, steals scenes relentlessly as Mandy, the oh-so-loving, mentally challenged girl who keeps assuring everyone that things will be OK. When that gets tired, Thomas distracts us from the distraction: The usually sullen 17-year-old Miranda (Andrea Procter) literally throws herself, in one of a couple of successfully farcical bits, on the hunky leader of her church youth group (Corey Nelson).

It’s all relatively well delivered, but it goes nowhere. The distractions never stop; they just come more quickly and, despite the small performance space, more loudly. The potential summer in Europe never takes on any thematic weight, the sale of the newspaper becomes just one more issue to be resolved impulsively and whatever inquiries Thomas seemed to be making are left, not just unanswered, but unasked.

Serious Inquiries Only

Sidewalk Studio Theater, Toluca Lake; 31 seats; $20

Production: A Deborah Thomas and Stephen Brand presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by D. Paul Thomas.

Creative: Set, Jeff Crye; costumes, Maggie Morgan; music consultant, Bo Leibowitz. Opened March 22, 2002, reviewed March 23; runs through April 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: Matthew - Jeff Allin Margaret - Kathryn Joosten Mandy - Nicholle Tom Melissa - Ann Gillespie Miranda - Andrea Procter Rick - Corey Nelson

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