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FINE-TUNING COMEDY: Local playwright John Grudzien keeps up the laughs in his night of one-acts

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Wilmington easily averagse more than 30 original shows produced here a year. That’s incredible creative output.

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John Grudzien’s evening of “Laughter, Loss and Light” currently is playing at the Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Grudzien’s original works are paired with offerings of Big Dawg’s Youth Play Festival.

Grudzien’s first one act, “The Curse of the Diamond,” is a very funny send-up of Cold War mystery thrillers. The Constellation Diamond, the most famous and cursed diamond in the world, has brought together a group of people who likely wouldn’t have found each other otherwise.

Shawn Sproatt gives us Rebecca Kirk, one of the most fabulously drunk, jilted brides ever to miss her own wedding. She is assisted onto the train by Mrs. Matilda Meridan (Suzanne Nystrom)—a proactive parody of Agatha Christie and Niago Marsh—and Doris Schwartz (Susan Auten), a rich widow of questionable character. While Mrs. Schwartz is busy exploring possibilities with semi-successful matinee idol Desmond D’Arcy (James  Davenport), they are keenly watched by Al Lawson (Steve Vernon)—who seems to find them more interesting than the Playboy magazine he carries. Somehow all of these people are interested in acquiring the Constellation Diamond; one of them has it and everyone else would like to steal it.

As if things weren’t tense enough, the KGB is in on the act. Terri Batson and Charles Auten bring to life the two funniest, sexually charged KGB agents to hit the stage in quite some time. Are they really there to find the diamond? It is starting to look like an exhibitionist fantasy for the two of them.

Grudzien’s talent lies in writing comedy. With Batson and Auten he has two performers who will go to any length to get the laugh. There is no such thing as too over the top, too ridiculous or too absurd. I would almost say they steal the show—except that everyone onstage is ridiculous, and Vernon’s Al is oddly fascinating in his creepy interest in the others. His final monologue at the end is vintage Vernon: selling the farce with all the mock seriousness he can muster.

Grudzien’s second offering of the evening, “The Care-Full Moving Company,” follows the adventures of young James Boyd (James Davenport) when he inherits the family moving company.  Grudzien is fond of the letter as a dramatic device and employs it for great comedic effect to set up the exposition of this piece:

James walks into the office to find a letter from his Uncle Harold (read in voiceover by Steve Vernon). It seems like an odd set up, but the real life-changing moments (for good and ill) are the ones we didn’t see coming. There can be no argument that moving house is one of the most stressful things a person or family can do. The disruption alone is hard to navigate; all that bubbles to the surface hits on already raw nerves. Boyd finds himself wading through the trials and tribulations of a family losing their home to foreclosure, an aging couple moving to assisted living and a man grappling with a divorce.

Davenport’s interpretation of Boyd is sort of a Frank Capra character dropped into the modern world: dispensing not so much advice, as a genuinely kind heart to listen when someone needs it most.   Sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger than someone with whom we have history.

It is a touching piece. Grudzien clearly has been sorting through the physical world of grief in the last year (he mentions it in his program notes), and returns to a central theme over and over again: Material possessions are not as important as memories. Boyd’s interlude with Colin Paulson (Charles Auten) might have hit the nail on the head: What Paulson needs help moving is not clothing or furniture but something much heavier; though, it will fit in a shoe box.

Grudzien is an interesting writer to watch. He stages new work, usually one-acts, on an almost annual basis. Getting to see his growth as a writer is fascinating. He has a natural gift for comedy and his ear for comedic dialogue is becoming quite fine-tuned. It seems appropriate Big Dawg, a company that has long supported original works—since their inaugural season, which included scripts by  and Hope Brownwell—is pairing the Youth Play Festival offerings with Grudzien’s shows.

At 7 p.m., an hour before the curtain goes up for Grudzien’s work, the final two one acts of the Youth Play Festival are presented free of charge. The night I attended, the offering was “Miss Mayberry” by Gracie Rose Blackburn, directed by Laura and Mary Smith. Essentially, it is a murder mystery farce, which paired well with Grudzien’s first piece.

James Davenport portrayed Miss Mayberry’s chauffeur and accomplice, Mr. Douffant. Shawn Sproatt brought the frightening Miss Mayberry to life, who alternately charms and terrifies her nieces and nephews sent to visit her following the death of their father. The twins, Edide (Bryson Byers) and Molly (Christina Tzidras), are pretty taken with Miss Mayberry’s world. Bryson especially likes Keely (Alexandra Pechlivanidis)—the pretty girl down the street. But the youngest, Samuel (Reno Ray), is skeptical. What is supposed to be a nice summer vacation turns into young love, crime-solving and ultimately avenging their father’s death.

Next week the Youth Play offering will be “The Coffee House” by Cecilia King.  It can be hard to realize how every city in America is not as fortunate as we are to have such a flourishing arts community. We easily average more than 30 original shows produced here a year. That’s incredible creative output. The Youth Play Festival especially provides a forum for our next generation of writers and artists. How fortunate that Big Dawg gives them and other writers a venue for their developing voices.

An Evening of One Acts: Youth Plays and ‘Laughter, Love and Loss’
January 21-24
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
7 p.m. or 3 p.m. on Sun.
Tickets: $15-$18 •

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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