Every now and then, while watching Ricky Graham's entertaining new play, When Ya Smilin', I found myself glancing at the audience. There was a sort of cozy, affectionate familiarity in the bursts of applause and laughter reminiscent of a studio audience at a popular TV show. The spectators sounded like fans who'd been following their favorites from afar for a period of years, and now at last were cheering them on in person. And yet, When Ya Smilin' is a brand-new script. In fact, it's a script that departs enough in approach from Graham's previous offerings to have caused both the writer and his long-time producer, Roy Smith, a good bit of anxiety about its acceptance.
The explanation for the mood in the theater, I think, is that Graham has connected with his audience in a special way. The homegrown, lower-middle-class white world depicted and the gentle wackiness of the approach have a recognizable flavor. A special local flavor, like Barq's or fried oysters. And people love this local entertainment flavor with the same feelings of proprietorship and participation.
In addition, there is a genuine "troupe." Just as one turned on Monty Python's Flying Circus to see what John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and company were up to, one goes to the True Brew partly to catch up on the latest shenanigans of Graham, Becky Allen, Sean Patterson, Roy Haylock and the others. In fact, the night I saw the show, the nonpareil Ms. Allen got an ovation on her first entrance.
When Ya Smilin' follows the life of the Dufour family from June 10, 1958 to June 10, 1959, which is to say it begins on the 10th birthday and ends on the 11th birthday of Paul Dufour, the central character. Paul (Patterson) is a precocious, imaginative child, whose main solace from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is a feverish correspondence with movie stars. One of Paul's goals in life is to persuade his father (Gavin Mahlie) to take the family on a trip to Hollywood. Another goal is to avoid his father's well-intentioned but hopeless attempts at male bonding in the form of football and the great outdoors. Paul's earnest hausfrau of a mother (Heidi Junius) is marginally more sympathetic with her son's eccentricities. But the boy seems almost a changeling, as he says, set down here by aliens from another planet.
It may not be necessary, however, to search distant galaxies for Paul's ancestry. The genetic secret may lie as close as Metairie, in the home of his flamboyant aunt Nettie (Allen), who dresses in furs and drives a Lincoln Continental. In her youth, she harbored dreams of movie stardom. Instead, she married Sidney. Her loss, our gain.
Sidney is a surly, sardonic, coarse-tongued curmudgeon and, in playwright Graham's perfect-pitch performance, a total delight. If Sidney is the immovable object, Peggy is a stomp-down Yat version of the irresistible force. "He doesn't know how much he loves me," she explains with the kind of hilarious, irrefutable logic to which Groucho Marx would enthusiastically concur.
The other big influence on Paul's life is his older sister, Peggy (Angela Mannino). Peggy shows her love by giving him a lavish and greatly desired birthday present: a subscription to TV Guide. But she also bewails her "stupid little sissy of a kid brother."
"Dramedy" is network newspeak for a funny show that is something more than funny. So I suppose we could say When Ya Smilin' marks Graham's first step into dramedy. Though by no means derivative, there is something of Neil Simon in this new approach. But, this dramedy takes odd turns and twists, including a chorus of instant nuns and a cameo appearance by Sigmund Freud. At one point, we somehow slip away to an opening-night interview conducted by Jimmy Stewart (Mahlie) that features a bevy of show biz celebs -- most memorably a pixilated Judy Garland (Heidi Jensen) generously offering to share her stash of diet pills.
In addition to writing the play and appearing in it, Graham directs -- and the strain of wearing so many hats certainly does not show. The talented cast handle their many tasks with verve and aplomb. The staging is smooth; no small feat, if one stops to the think about the many quick costume changes. As usual, Roy Haylock's eye-catching garb adds to the overall effect -- particularly in the fantasy scenes.
There will be those who will balk at two hours narrated by a grownup man playing a 10-year-old nervine. I confess to some early queasiness on that score, but Sean Patterson eventually won me over, and I ended up sympathizing with young Paul and his amiable, amusing clan of urban yokels.