Saving Mr. Wellborn

By Martin F. Kohn

Definition of the prototypical Meadow Brook Theatre play: a comedy with a familiar feel, a likable main character and possibly a touch of suspense but whose outcome is never in doubt; not edgy, not thought-provoking and definitely not one to leave an audience muttering, "What the hell was that about?"

In other words, "Harris Cashes Out!" If you like that sort of thing, you'll enjoy this world premiere comedy by Londos D'Arrigo (pipe down, spell-check; that's the man's name). D'Arrigo, it should be noted, wrote "Spreading It Around," a major hit for Meadow Brook a couple of seasons ago. No wonder artistic director Travis W. Walter was delighted for his theater to have first crack at D'Arrigo's latest offering and for himself to have first crack at directing it. Walter has good instincts for this sort of material.

Something else to make him (and playgoers) happy: the estimable Paul Hopper in the title role of Harris Wellborn, a 70-something playwright-composer who once, once, had a show produced off-Broadway. It ran for only one night, and although Harris had some modest success writing for nightclub acts, he is a failure, careerwise. He'd been far luckier in love, but his wife just died after 27 years of marriage, which brings Harris to his current status as a nonpaying tenant in a rundown apartment building that his sister owns.

Harris was always the artist in the family, whereas sister Maggie, played by Milica Govich (at ease, spell-check), is the practical one. Govich locates Maggie's uptight and self-satisfied core, but also zeroes in on her harder-to-find humanity as she and Harris find something humorous and enjoy convincing mutual laughter.

Concerned about her brother's health - Harris' serious fainting spell induced Maggie to move him closer to her - Maggie has hired another of her building's tenants, Kim (Katie Hardy), to look in on him.

Kim, dog-walker by profession, ditz by inclination, dresses like a 5-year-old who has picked out her own clothes for casual Friday at kindergarten and bops around as if listening through invisible earbuds to that satellite radio station that plays old 45 records at 78. (Note: There is no such station, but if Sirius/XM likes the idea, checks may be sent to me here at Encore Michigan world headquarters).

Of course, Harris and Kim will grow to like each other, in the manner of such other fogies-and-young-folks-find-common-ground as "Visiting Mr. Green" or "Grace and Glorie." But D'Arrigo adds a twist. Kim has a shrewd, smarmy boyfriend, Jason (Lucas Wells), who comes up with a creative way to steal from Harris, even though Harris is destitute.

D'Arrigo, who claims comedy-writing credits for Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin, knows how to launch a one-liner and Hopper knows how to land them - not too hard, not too soft. "It's a firetrap," he says, taking in Harris' new digs. "I always planned to be cremated, but I thought I'd be dead first." Hopper lets the line do the heavy work.

Harris is over the hill and Kim is over the top. Hardy bounces around so much she makes Tigger look sedated. It's fun for a while, but only for a while, and Hardy tones it down as her character becomes less of a caricature. Wells is almost ratlike in his cunning, and Govich appears early and late, hard-nosed and practical, the human equivalent of bookends.

Brian Kessler's set is the quintessential crummy apartment, with walls that seemingly saw their last coat of paint during the Nixon administration, lit to perfection by Reid G. Johnson - not too hard, not too soft.

REVIEW:

'Harris Cashes Out'

Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through Feb. 2. 1 hour, 45 minutes. $25-40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com

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