If you have never worked in show business, you'll likely get a chuckle from Triple Espresso, now playing at the Cabaret at Theater Square. Billing itself as a "highly caffeinated comedy," the show is about three showmen, all ex-friends, who used to perform together in various variety shows. They are reunited, 25 years later, at the Triple Espresso Café, and they relive their turbulent pasts through song, magic tricks and shadow-puppetry. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
If you have worked in show business, Triple Espresso is a much darker roast. A touring show produced here by the Civic Light Opera, Espresso began as a three-man vaudeville act in a Minneapolis church. The original players were Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg, who also wrote, directed and starred. They based the revue on their respective talents (song, magic, comedy); they took up aliases (Hugh, Buzz and Bobby); and they performed a show about, well, performing shows.
Espresso is just like Nunsense, Forever Plaid and The Big Bang, with one major difference: These guys are truly, genuinely sad people. They've failed at everything, including a stint in Africa. They have talent, but not enough, and when opportunity flares, they douse the flame.
Actors beware: If you have ever worked in low-rent theaters, been conned into a stupid project, bombed at a comedy club, lost your girlfriend to a producer or been sabotaged by a jealous colleague, Espresso may give you the jitters. The show can feel nightmarish, and not just because there's an actual nightmare sequence. Civilians will enjoy the romp, but actors and comics may see a Kafkaesque version of themselves, and the sight ain't pretty.
For whatever reason, this show has a rotating cast that includes one Hugh, two Bobbys and three Buzzes. The cast I caught in the fall featured Brian Kelly, Dane Stauffer and Christopher Hart, who told their jokes well and capably punked the audience. Hart's disembodied hand played "Thing" in The Addams Family movies, so it's no wonder that his tricks were a joy to watch -- especially when he (deliberately) fumbled.
Hart also stole the best role. As a character, Buzz the magician is by far the most engaging: He's serious and neurotic, and unlike Hugh and Bobby, who are essentially cartoon characters, Buzz actually seems damaged by life. (At press time, the current cast included Stauffer, Charles Peters and Duane Daniels; it will rotate once more before closing in January.)
Espresso has an odd ending; it's less a slam-bang finish than a breakthrough therapy session. Most people will think it sweet, but stage veterans will taste the bitterness.
Triple Espresso continues through Jan. 9. Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or pittsburghclo.org