If ever a play belonged in a church basement, it’s “Who Am I This Time?”
Performed on a serviceable little proscenium in the cavernous lower level of Calvary Church in south Minneapolis, Peter Vitale’s musical take on a sweetly clever Kurt Vonnegut short story uses the vehicle of a community theater production, set in 1961 small-town Wisconsin, to bring together two isolated misfits.
Harry (Damian Leverett) may be a tongue-tied hardware store clerk by day, but put a script in his hand and he’s magically transformed. When the North Crawford Mask and Wig Company decides to stage “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Leverett visibly trades in Harry’s diffidence for the strutting arrogance and machismo of Stanley Kowalski. No matter the role, Harry’s only question is, “Who am I this time?”
Who better to pair with this leading man than Helene, a buttoned-down phone company rep, played with smiling vacuity by Laurel Armstrong? Harry’s onstage passion awakens a slumbering volcano in his leading lady, and her determination to overcome his handicap culminates in a cleverly effective solution.
Director Craig Johnson and an accomplished cast tackle this charming tale with enthusiasm and skill in the apt setting of the bare-bones Glanton Theater. Leverett and Armstrong positively sizzle as they shed their inhibitions to become Stanley and Stella in their “Streetcar” audition, while the “Last Chance Duet” they share in the second act creates a beautifully poignant reflection on missed opportunities.
Andrea Wollenberg and Janet Hanson offer solid performances as two pillars of the community theater. Sean Dooley lends the role of school-janitor-turned-director a gently humorous charm.
Karen Wiese-Thompson shines in a variety of broadly comic cameos, including simultaneously playing a boisterous cheerleader and her football-playing doofus of a boyfriend. Her earnest rendition of the cheerleader’s Lady Macbeth audition piece, complete with a careful substitution of “heck” for “hell,” provides one of the evening’s most hilarious moments.
The charms of these various characters aside, Vitale’s book turns Vonnegut’s short and sweet tale into a marathon. Two acts, multiple digressive back stories and 21 songs simply add too much weight, threatening to sink what should be a fairly brisk piece.
Vitale is an enormously talented artist, as his long-standing work as composer and musical director for Ten Thousand Things Theater ably demonstrates, and he’s got the bones of a charming piece here. He just needs to decide, as one of his characters sings in the second act, when he’s reached the point of “Enough!”
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.