New World Repertory Company

at the Red Lion Pub

Mr. Frish’s chemistry class has only two students in it by midterm–an uninspired drone named Linda Magill and a Chilean exchange student named Tino Machete, who seems to move in a cloud of testosterone. But Machete is more than a vaquero too sexy for his chaps; he’s a brilliant chemistry student, pointing out errors in the outdated elements table hanging in the classroom and pursuing his interest with a messianic vision. Gradually his passion infects not only his fellow student but also his teacher, pushing them to accomplish more than they thought themselves capable of and to recognize the dignity inherent in the title of “chemist.”

Stan Rutledge is expecting an IRS representative to come audit his none-too-orderly books. He desperately attempts to get out of his situation; upon learning that his auditor is a young woman, he even tries to distract her by flirting with her. By the end of his ordeal, he has discovered that his taxes are not as exorbitant as he had anticipated and that the competent Ms. Hendricks is rather attractive. But when he proposes a date she refuses, reminding him that she granted him no favor and that he should not confuse his relief with affection.

If these two scenarios sound like TV comedy material, it should come as no surprise that their authors, Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, are now in Los Angeles writing precisely that. Clearly their genre has its limitations, and their casts break down into the formula improv team–fat guy, funny guy, regular guy, and two contrasting females. But both The Plan and The Periodic Table of the Elements display a reversal of expectations that’s as refreshing as it is unusual. The notion of a non-nerd scientist or a nondraconian IRS agent should not strain credibility nowadays, but one would never know from watching the quantity of current comedy that seems content to reaffirm popular stereotypes and the all-American suspicion of anything too brainy.

These two plays, the most successful portion of the New World Repertory Company’s program, feature some fine uncliched performances by Richard Shavzin as the bewildered chemistry teacher and the hapless Stan, Gretchen Sonstroem as the buttoned-up IRS agent, Lisa K. Wyatt as the inept student, and especially Ken Dice as the scientific superman.

More conventional are two short monologues: Ray’s Place, which features a stock money-grubbing auto mechanic (James Blanchette), and The Hoot Office, in which a receptionist (Wyatt) gives us the lowdown on her coworkers in an abrasive cockatoo voice that makes her almost unintelligible.

With this much show, there was no real need to include Chekhov’s The Boor, standard reading in drama classes from elementary grades on up. Yet Dice turns in a well-thought-out performance as the servant, maintaining a consistent character even when being a bit free with the script–as when he tells his mistress, “Even the cat knows how to be happy, slipping about the courtyard to catch the little bird,” and then mutters to himself, “Dead birds.” Less impressive are Blanchette as the gauche landowner, whose dainty gestures are at odds with his loutish character, and Sonstroem as the bourgeois widow he harasses, whose interpretation of the antiquated dialogue is less acting than acting out.

Chekhov, Steve and Leo, being only New World Repertory’s second production, has a few rough edges. (And the cramped 36-seat room above the Red Lion Pub doesn’t offer much room for creativity.) But the two strongest sketches make up for any imperfections in the other three.