Francesca Sanders, author of Celeste and Starla Save Todd and Win Back the Day, writes in her program notes for the production that "of one thing I am certain -- a good time will be had by all." When you make a claim like that, you'd better have the goods to back it up. At the inaugural show for the new Mercury Players Theatre space on Fair Oaks Avenue, Sanders fell a long way short of her boast.
The play announces its intention with an ingenious and vibrantly painted set that looks like the bastard child of Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Designers Casey Sean Grimm and Doug Holtz give a psychedelic nod to F.W. Murnau, with crazily angled doors, flaps that burst open from the walls, and scene shifts that are straight out of a pop-up storybook.
The set is a physical reflection of the script, which is filled with non sequiturs and incomprehensible analogies. Even to someone who was raised on the insanity of The Goon Show and Monty Python's Flying Circus, this nonsensical use of language is frustratingly fractured. It's like being trapped inside a linguistic kaleidoscope.
The story is a giddily contorted though ultimately predictable quasi-parody of Nancy Drew. Celeste (played with impressive vigor by Jessica Joan Evans) is a wannabe detective who babbles ceaselessly to her sidekick, a starfish (no, really) called Starla, uttering such gems as "Love can turn you into a giant upright piano." Celeste is engaged by a millionaire to track down his son Todd (Sean Langenecker), who went missing when he was just a baby. But the wafer-thin plot merely serves as the playwright's vehicle for whimsicality for its own sake.
The three-person cast is not short of energy or enthusiasm. As the garrulous gumshoe, Evans engages well with the audience. But her character, charmingly eccentric at first, rapidly becomes teeth-grindingly irritating. Langenecker is fairly one-dimensional as Todd, mostly because the role is so poorly defined. And playing a plethora of other parts is Damon Butler, who is particularly vivacious as a Brazilian femme (or possibly homme) fatale.
The zany randomness of the overwrought script might appeal to a midnight-show audience, who could enjoy the numerous opportunities to interact with the cast. As it stands, however, the play's surrealistic meanderings are the opposite of that starfish -- pointless.