Mario Farwell's The Last Days of Café Café is the latest offering from First Run Theatre, a local producing entity that operates under the conviction that providing a fully staged mounting of a new play is constructive and helpful. Judging from this current production, as well as the last show we saw at First Run, there is room for doubt.
First Run seems to think that a playwright can benefit from seeing his or her play performed in front of a paying audience. That notion makes sense -- in theory. But First Run seems to be skipping a beat, because before the audience is allowed in to see the play there's a process known as rehearsal, whose primary purpose is to solve problems early on. When a play drags on for more than three hours -- as this one does -- rehearsal is where you are expected to first trim the fat. It's unfair, wasteful and downright abusive to leave a play untouched in rehearsal and instead rely on the audience to tell the author what's not working. Actors know when scenes aren't working; directors know. (Producers are supposed to know.) If by opening night Farwell didn't already know his play was too long, he was the only person in the auditorium who didn't.
Café Café has a good title and a sound premise. The story concerns a rogue's gallery of social misfits who have found refuge in a seedy San Diego beachfront hotel. When the building is about to be razed to make way for luxury condominiums, the tenants are compelled to put aside their petty problems and unite in a last-ditch battle for existence. The hotel's greasy-spoon diner becomes their meeting place. But if the play is cut from the same cloth as Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore and William Inge's Bus Stop (substitute sand for snow), Farwell has yet to develop Wilson's and Inge's understanding of structure and craft.
Just one of numerous examples: One of the inhabitants, a mysterious and seldom-seen former striptease artist (performed with genial élan by Nancy Crouse), does not appear until the final seconds of Act One. Which is to say that the playwright had 80 minutes in which to prepare the audience for her grand entrance. But when she finally does enter the café, it takes a viewer a moment to figure out who she is. Any hope for a sense of climax and import has been missed.
In her program notes, director Anna Blair charitably describes the play as "a collection of snapshots of the lives of its characters." Unfortunately, Farwell has taken his snapshots on a 36-exposure roll of film when a 24-exposure roll would have sufficed. "I tend to ramble, go on and on talking about nothing," one character acknowledges in maybe the play's truest line. Then after nearly three hours of often-repetitive palaver, with startling suddenness everything is neatly and predictably resolved in the final minutes.
The inhabitants include a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Meg McClelland) who has lost her confidence, a Bible-spouting neurotic (the poignant Mark Moloney) and an intriguing fisherman (Archie J. Coleman) whose words always come out in a jumble -- a technique that works well, because it forces the viewer to listen to what he's saying. The cast works valiantly to instill some life into the piece, with varying degrees of success. As Casey, Café Café's hardworking Filipino owner, Alan David brings welcome simplicity and clarity to his role. David Weis portrays a beach bum with refreshing naturalness. Tyler Duenow has designed an effective multitiered set.
We can only hope that all this hard work hasn't been squandered. One wonders how much, if anything, Farwell learned from listening to the polite audience response on opening night. He might have learned a great deal more had he been forced to stand in the lobby next to the front door at intermission and count all the patrons who walked out. A harsh lesson -- but that too is part of learning how to write for paying customers.