Neil Simon is best known for light comedies like The Odd Couple and Brighton Beach Memiors; THE GINGERBREAD LADY, the current offering from The Chapel Street Players in Newark, Delaware, is, by contrast, a heavy drama about addiction, abuse and fading youth. To be sure, there is wit and humor in the piece, but this is a play where seriousness is front and center.
The story revolves around Evy Meara, a 43-year-old alcoholic and former bar singer, her teenage daughter, Polly, and her closest friends, Jimmy and Toby. As the story opens, Evy, played here with conviction by Susan Boudreaux, is just returning home after a ten-week stint in rehab. Jimmy (Ed Emmi), a struggling actor, and Toby (Pat Cullinane), her vain best friend (think “Housewives of ‘70s Manhattan”), anxiously try to help her adjust to clean and sober living back at her apartment. As much as they want to be there for her, neither stay long that first night, leaving her alone to battle her demons. Evy isn’t alone for long, though, as 17-year-old Polly (Heather Mikles) shows up and announces that she’s been sent by her father to live with her. Confused, but vaguely thrilled, Evy seems ready to move forward, even showing the no-good ex she hasn’t quite gotten over (Bill Swezy) the door when he shows up and tries to reconcile.
Of course, demons never go down easy. Time passes, and Evy slips, her dear friends so consumed with their own troubles that they barely notice — at least until Evy, like the gingerbread lady Polly remembers from childhood, crumbles.
Ed Emmi and Pat Culliane, as Jimmy and Toby, add comic relief to the early scenes — though, as things darken for the three central characters, humor becomes sparse. Both play their roles flawlessly. The play is strikingly realistic, and they come off as if the characters are their natural selves. Patrick Cathcart, in a supporting role as Manuel, the grocery delivery guy, also stands out. The show belongs to Boudreaux, though, who doesn’t miss a beat, even with a minor (but not unrealistic) set malfunction.
Although it wasn’t written as one, the 1970 play is now something of a period piece, its place in time a fixture, like the rotary phone and the record player on stage. Simon himself updated THE GINGERBREAD LADY in 1981 for the more comic film Only When I Laugh. Although the small details were there, I would have liked to have seen it treated more as a step back in time. Not over the top, but things like the costuming, especially on Polly, could have been more timely. It matters, not because the subject matter is specific to the ‘70s (it’s not), but because a lot of what made the play strong in its time was its edginess — openly gay Jimmy, the sexual dialogue, the dark subject matter of addiction… none of which are especially edgy or shocking today. A bit more visual time context may have compensated. Still, the Chapel Street Players performed THE GINGERBREAD LADY just as intended, with passion and intensity.
THE GINGERBREAD LADY
By Neil Simon
Directed by Don Pruden
March 2 – March 10 2012
Chapel Street Players
27 N. Chapel St
Newark, DE 19715