‘Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein’ had Oakland audience laughing all night

By Milan Paurich

The weather outside was frightful, but not even the biggest snowstorm in years could deter theatergoers from turning out en masse Friday night for the opening performance of “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at the Oakland Center for the Arts. And judging by the volcanic, convulsive laughter that erupted throughout the auditorium from start to finish, I’m guessing that nobody minded having to shovel a path to their car just to get home.

A kooky amalgam of 10 scenes with no discernible connection other than the misanthropic worldview of the late Shel Silverstein, “An Adult Evening” is as spotty as most anthologies of this type. Having read the play in advance, I was quite frankly shocked that director Shawn Lockaton and his superb cast — some newbies, several ringers — managed to find as many chuckles as they did in the text. Or maybe Silverstein’s omnibus just “plays” better than it reads.

Chris Bosi’s neatly functional set serves as an appealing, unfussy backdrop for a succession of blackout skits, many of which could have hailed from the glory days of “Saturday Night Live” (if NBC censors had been asleep at the wheel, that is). Some playlets, however — e.g., Act One’s sophomoric “Bus Stop” — probably should have never seen the light of day. Yet even the weakest bits are consistently elevated, if not wholly redeemed, by the caliber of acting.

Show opener “The Best Daddy” is a queasy exercise in dark comedy in which a father surprises his daughter with a dead pony (?!) for her 13th birthday.

More creepy than funny due to its intimations of possible sexual abuse, the scene still manages to work because brilliant Oakland newcomers Kenny Lazarus and Courtney Auman give such bravura, fiercely committed performances.

Although the two prostitutes (Auman and the divine Molly Makselan) soliciting a potential customer in “Buy One, Get One Free” promise “no crudeness, no vulgarity,” “An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein” is chockablock with both. In other words, if you’re the type of prude who’s easily offended, the show’s off-color (and occasionally off-putting) humor, voluminous profanity and occasional peek-a-boo nudity are liable to give you a heart attack.

Silverstein may have written his share of kid-friendly works (“Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Giving Tree” among them), but this clearly isn’t one of them. (That “Adult” in the play’s title is both an adjective and a noun.)

“Thinking Up a New Name for the Act,” one of the most consistently amusing skits, features only two words (“meat” and “potatoes”) repeated ad infinitum while tracking a crime story from murder to trial to execution. As the Bickering Bickersons whose squabble escalates to homicide, Lazarus and Bernadette Lin bring an incredible amount of barbed wit and telling nuance to those two simple words.

Husbands and wives figure prominently in two other vignettes as well. “The Lifeboat is Sinking” consists of a late-night argument between a married couple (Oakland regular Suzanne Shorrab and impressive first-timer Dan Poppke) about who should/would be tossed overboard if they were stranded on a lifeboat. And in “One Tennis Shoe,” an apoplectic husband (Poppke again) works up the nerve to confront his batty wife (Makselan in the evening’s finest performance) about her bag-lady proclivities. I also very much enjoyed the droll “Wash and Dry” in which a trip to the dry cleaners turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare for an unsuspecting customer (Lin). Playing the officious clerk-from-hell, Shaun Lipe matches the terrific Lin laugh for laugh.

Lipe is also very good as a loquacious pet in “Blind Willie and The Talking Dog,” an otherwise ho-hum skit that does feature some crazy-cool harmonica playing by Oakland novice Adam Jackson as the titular hobo. Equally one-note is “Smile,” a badly dated skit about the inventor of the smiley-face logo (Eric McCrea). Speaking of monotonous, the satirical “Going Once” quickly wears out its welcome despite splendid work by the indispensable Makselan and Charles Kettering.

Lockaton and the Oakland are to be commended for choosing a show as defiantly quirky and not-for-all-tastes as “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.” But if the raucous laughter still ringing through my ears is any indication, there’s clearly an appetite for unconventional theater in the Mahoning Valley. Which, needless to say, is very good news for all of us.

X“An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” runs through next Sunday at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For tickets, call (330) 746-0404. Saturday’s performance was canceled because of the snow.

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