My advice: get a decent meal in you before seeing American Wee-Pie, the new comedy by Chicago writer Lisa Dillman. Huge stretches of its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time depict people savoring cupcakes and talking—lovingly, caressingly—about them. If you’re even just slightly hungry you might find yourself losing focus, thinking ahead to where you can go after the show for something slathered in icing. And then you’re lost.
Not that you’ll have a difficult time finding your way back. American Wee-Pie isn’t complicated or unfamiliar, though Dillman has worked hard to give it oddball flourishes. In Megan Carney’s world-premiere staging for Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, it comes across as nothing more nor less than a sweet contrivance—good enough to induce a pleasant sugar high despite some lumps here, a bit of buttercream heaviness there.
The hero of the piece, Tim “Zed” Zedlicki, looks like Willy Loman, only more pathetic, when we see him for the first time, standing in a doorway with a suitcase in his hand. A middle-aged, $40,000-per-annum textbook editor who’s spent the last nine years sitting in a corporate cubicle, exchanging e-mails with other people sitting in corporate cubicles, Zed’s come back to his little midwestern hometown to dispose of his dead mother’s earthly remains and take abuse from his angry sister Pam. He’s lonely, tired, creatively stymied, and dresses like a schlub. Forget Willy Loman; picture a seriously depressed Harpo Marx.
That’s all about to change, of course. Wandering around town, lost in his waking nightmare, Zed steps distractedly into the path of a moving car—which allows him to be saved by Lindsay Gofferty, a friendly, fleshy woman he knew slightly in high school. Cheerfully bossy, she takes him back to Le Petit Gateau, the avant-garde cupcake “emporium” she runs with her husband, Pableu, whose eccentric recipes come to him in dreams. When Zed recognizes the hint of daikon radish in Pableu’s latest creation (“root veggies can transform a cupcake”), a whole new world opens up. Soon enough, Zed of the supersensitive taste buds has chucked his old job and gone to work as Pableu’s apprentice.
Dillman musters a nice, literate, often deadpan satiric wit, especially when it comes to the new gastronomy. Pableu’s modernist brainstorms include a feta-pumpkin-praline cupcake, as well as novel applications of pesto mayonnaise, panang curry, and caramelized chipotle. His test tastings have the air of guided visualizations, with the blindfolded participants being led step-by-step into a kind of choco-spiritual trance state. And Lindsay speaks volumes about her relationship with him when she calls him her “big, strong cupcake sheriff.”
What’s more, Dillman has come up with one truly original comic creation in Pete Putterman, a former real estate broker who lost his job in the recession. Pete now sells burial sites, which he refers to as “properties,” buys up, and “flips” for a profit. One of three incidental characters engagingly played by Keith Kupferer, Pete figures in a hilarious subplot involving Zed’s sister Pam and an attractive mausoleum that “sleeps eight.”
Even so, there are plenty of places where the play still needs work. Some passages are far too sketchy. Zed, for instance, tells a story early on about Phil, a fellow textbook editor, who was fired, essentially, for being a loudmouthed insurance risk (“A fat smoker? In this economy?”) and dropped dead on his way to the elevator. Later, when Zed is accosted by a sick-joke-telling, kick-scooter-riding old guy, we’re left to figure out for ourselves, first, that he’s Phil’s ghost, and, second, that he’s a Major Trope. Similarly, we never get more than inconclusive, generic reasons for Pam’s anger. On the other hand, Dillman is far too emphatic in her efforts to deliver Wee-Pie‘s bottom-line messages about following one’s bliss and reconciling with one’s past. Already obvious—not to say trite—they don’t need to be underlined.
Maybe director Carney can help with some of these issues. Certainly, there must be a staging solution for the Phil problem. The play already benefits greatly from her cast and crew. Kurt Brocker makes something vivid of Zed as he moves from a very nearly zomboid metaconsciousness to a childlike rediscovery of himself. Jennifer Pompa is implacably sunny as Lindsay, never lacking for an answer even if she has to make one up. And the set by Regina Garcia is delicately calibrated to provide smooth, believable movement from place to place on Rivendell’s small stage.