If summer's in full flower, then you can bet madcap comedies are blooming at local summer theaters, too. And so it is with Cheat Sheets, a new comedy/farce at South Park Theatre written by F.J. Hartland.
A Pittsburgh-based playwright of national standing, as well as a theater critic for a competing (as if!) news outlet, Hartland has premiered three comedies at South Park Theatre over the years. His writing has also regularly won awards at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.
I've been a confirmed Hartland fan for a number years -- I think I even directed a play of his a gazillion years ago -- because I like "funny," and there are few writers who can write as funny as Hartland. Given that this production of Cheat Sheets is a premiere, I'd say that Hartland is on his way toward the comedy promised land.
The plot concerns two book editors, Willa Drake and Andrew Snell, working at a publishing house which is downsizing. One of them has to go, so the other must come up with a spectacular literary stunt to save his or her job. I don't want to give any more away, but a stunt is launched which backfires in an even more spectacular way, and that's where Hartland finds the comedy.
Though I found much to enjoy with the extant script, I think what keeps Cheat Sheets from scoring a direct bull's-eye is just how much Hartland has back-loaded it. All the plotting and planning, action and complications happen in the second act: The first act is mostly exposition (as well as a few dramatic cul-de-sacs) presented in the form of a low-level "quirky character" comedy. It's not until Act II -- when Hartland switches to full-fledged farce mode -- that the evening takes off.
In other words, there are almost two different plays bumping up against one another here. Not that he asked or anything, but I think Hartland needs to consider eliminating the first act entirely (the few bits of plot important to the engine of the play can be dispatched as a couple lines of dialogue). That will allow him to open up the second act enormously so he can explicitly focus on the technique, mechanics and rewards of farce ... which is the direction it feels like Hartland was eager to follow all along.
In frankly working in farce mode, Hartland could also adjust the characters. Currently, four of them are very funny cartoon-y types, while two are sincere and modestly drawn. Either group is fine, but I'm not sure they can all be in the same play.
Director Lora Oxenreiter works in tandem with Hartland's two-toned style. Where he's written "quirky comedy," she directs "quirky comedy" -- and when he moves into farce, she's right behind him.
Given the conflicting demand of the script, it's maybe not surprising that the actors seem a bit daunted, although Cameron Crowe plays his dumb-as-a-box-of-hair lunk with funny vapidity, and Naomi Grodin's sexually-charged vamp gets the funniest lines and plays them well.
Cheat Sheets continues through July 18. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412-831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com