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STAGE REVIEWS : One Play’s Too Heavy, Another’s a Souffle : ‘Out of the Frying Pan’ Cooks Up a Load of Laughs

There’s good news for patrons of the Way Off Broadway Playhouse. For one thing, the small theater in Santa Ana finally has put in real seats to replace those makeshift jobs that were such a pain, literally.

That’s not the best news, though: After suffering through several weak, even embarrassing productions since it opened in late 1987, Way Off Broadway has a show it can be pleased about.

As the first offering in its second season, the company has taken Francis Swann’s seldom-staged 1930s screwball comedy “Out of the Frying Pan” and has plumbed its harebrained wackiness. The result is an overacted, overheated show that is a kick from the start.

Director Tony Reverditto realizes that “Out of the Frying Pan” is the kind of play even someone with a barely responsive EEG will have no trouble understanding, so he immediately tosses subtlety aside. This production comes at you with bad accents and dopey situations, silly gags and infectious performances.

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Swann couldn’t have put a lot of thought into the plot: What we get is six frisky young actors, an even mix of boys and girls, sharing a New York apartment that just happens to be above the flat of a big-deal Broadway producer.

The kids’ scheme, see, is to rehearse one of his murder mysteries in their apartment and then finagle him upstairs to see a performance. Amazed by their talents, he will sign them for his next show.

Right. Of course, everything goes wrong. First, a blue-blooded friend (Layce Gardner) of the resident birdbrain (Brenda Beals) comes a calling. She finds the living arrangement, uh, peculiar. Then the birdbrain’s stuffy politician father makes an entrance. Yipes, better hide the boys. Then the eccentric producer (Richard Flin) gets involved. Then the cops drop in. . . .

It may not sound like much, and, guess what, it isn’t. But Swann does fill most scenes with enough knuckleheaded gags to keep things moving. Some scenes romp better than others--the busy nonsense with the police is not that funny--but the show tends to work when the roommates get to interact.

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The performances can’t be called original. In fact, most are straight-up swipes of pretty familiar characterizations--Gardner’s snob, for example, is a dead-eye incarnation of Miss Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies"--but they are amusing nonetheless.

Beals does the generic dumb blonde (sometimes she’s Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” other times she’s more like Jean Kasem’s Loretta of “Cheers”) with cute results. Michael Kemp’s Norman, the pumped-up, Brooklyn wise guy, could be any one of the Bowery Boys. Michelle Fashian as the wry Kate could be doing just about any Southern belle/smarty-pants, maybe a young Tallulah Bankhead.

Cathleen Cullen is a natural for the role of the sweet ingenue Marge and Michael Gaffney has some of the most fun as the mincing, always-hungry George. Shawn Smyth as Marge’s husband and Terri Schmidt as the landlord are also commendable.

As usual, the production values are flea market utilitarian: standard blue blazers with upturned collars pass for police uniforms, that kind of thing. But that’s OK, too.

‘OUT OF THE FRYING PAN’

A Way Off Broadway Playhouse production of Francis Swann’s comedy. Directed by Tony Reverditto. With Michael Gaffney, Michael Kemp, Terri Schmidt, Shawn Smyth, Layce Gardner, Michelle Fashian, Cathleen Cullen, Brenda Beals, Jim Bogner, Richard Flin, Jim Huang and Kevin Diehm. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through March 11 at 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana. Tickets $8 to $10. (714) 547-8997.


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