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Stage: Charlotte's Off-Broadway Delivers in a New Performance Space
A delicious farce, but a central choice distracts from perfection
Charlotte’s Off-Broadway’s production of Thumbs is an unpredictable and laugh-out-loud murder mystery featuring a gallery of unsavory characters we all love to see. Going into its final week in a new 55-seat theater at VAPA, the Visual and Performing Arts Center, Thumbs surprises and delights throughout, but one choice is behind the times.
Company founder Anne Lambert has been working on and offstage in Charlotte theater since 1998. She is a co-founder of Chickspeare, Charlotte’s all-female Shakespeare company now celebrating its 25th season. With Lambert at the helm, Off-Broadway’s mission explicitly centers women’s issues with the aim of portraying authentic experiences and dramatizing questions around inequality and social injustice. Thumbs meets these criteria obliquely, with daytime television actress Marta Dunhill (Stephanie DiPaolo) and Sheriff Jane Morton (Lambert) both having found their own measure of success despite disappointing marriages to flawed partners.
The playwright is Rupert Holmes, singer and songwriter of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”. No stranger to a good setup, Holmes places the characters in a backwoods cabin in the fictional town of Barnstock, Vermont. Thumbs is not another classic of mistaken identity, but Holmes deftly arranges a delightful mystery. Unsavory characters with familiar human desires employ novel strategies to meet their goals, and the twists leave the audience guessing and second-guessing throughout. It’s worth noting that another alcoholic drink is again instrumental to Holmes’s plot, but I won’t say which.
Marta has traveled to Barnstock from Los Angeles to settle differences with her ex-husband Freddie (Adam Donshik), only to find herself caught up in the local panic around serial killer Tom Thumb. The first act is a delicious game of underhanded barbs between DiPaolo and Donshik, with their mutual animosity fueling the laughter. Maudlin and entitled, Marta is the center of the play. DiPaolo’s expressive face, by turns knowing, zany, and unhinged, is in hilarious flux throughout her performance. Donshik is a highlight of the show as Freddie, whose frustrations with Marta discharge themselves in a careful balance of disinterest, nostalgia, and venom.
Barnstock’s Sheriff Jane and her deputy Wilton arrive at the cabin as the Tom Thumb case develops. Lambert as the sheriff is effortlessly funny in her folksy, matter-of-fact portrayal, playing up her unearned physical familiarity with Marta and casual release of vital information for big laughs. Marta’s new lover, tennis instructor Todd Monroe (Jason Loughlin), adds more wrinkles to the plot with smarmy swagger and a smirk, ever with a whisky glass in hand. The ensemble is magnetic and prickling with energy. They hold the audience’s attention with authority.
Mark Scarboro channels Jimmy Stewart as the intellectually disabled sheriff’s deputy Wilton Dekes, who seems to be the only truly good person onstage. Wilton’s pie-eyed honesty and manipulable innocence operate together to advance the plot, and Scarboro’s excellent timing and commitment to character are evident. However, they are not enough to distract from the fact that the physical vocabulary of disability is regularly the source of the comedy. Wilton is not Tropic Thunder’s Simple Jack, but the signals are broadcast to the audience from the deputy’s first entrance to the end of the play.
Scarboro played this role before in Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s 2001 production of Thumbs. This was smack dab in the middle between Adam Sandler’s Bobby Boucher and Johnny Knoxville’s The Ringer, and the choice to play Wilton as disabled would have fit the comedy of the times. If there was an effort to update Scarboro’s approach this time around, it does not meet contemporary audiences where they are. The play attempts, eventually, to make everyone else the butt of the joke, and I do not believe any choices in this show were made in bad faith. Thumbs just fails to read the room. Laughing at Wilton is laughing at his handicap, and it is not clear that the script demands this characterization.
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With Thumbs, the distracting deputy may rankle the people in the seats and rightly so; however, the dedicated effort put forth by this cast and crew to mount a tight, immersive comedy-thriller delivers on its mission. Each actor brought the joy of performance directly to the audience, and I look forward to future productions from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway.
You can still see Thumbs this week at VAPA, 700 N Tryon St, Charlotte
Wednesday 7:30 Nov 2 (‘Pay What You Can’ show)
Thursday 7:30 Nov 3
Friday 8:00 Nov 4
Saturday 8:00 Nov 5