On Theater: Show at Playhouse is a real 'Firecracker'

Thirty years ago, young playwright Beth Henley won the Pulitzer Prize for her second play, "Crimes of the Heart." She followed it with another of her trademark farcical comedies set in the deep South, "The Miss Firecracker Contest."

The characters in "Crimes" often were pathetic, but they shared a deeply felt humanity. In "Firecracker," the current Huntington Beach Playhouse production, their outrageousness is magnified at the expense of a true connection.

Henley created a collection of Southern-fried misfits for "Firecracker" that make the denizens of "Crimes" look like Rhodes scholars. Unlike the tight ensemble of the prize winner, these folks are plowing full-steam in varying directions, and the chances of any of them achieving satisfaction are remote.

The goofiness centers on the leading character, Carnelle, the town tart hoping to boost her local image by winning the beauty/talent contest so she can leave for greener pastures on a high note. As the play opens, she's rehearsing her routine, and we can pretty much guess at her chances for success.

She's assisted in her quest by her cousin, a restless former Firecracker winner who's walked out on her marriage, and by a tall, lanky (at least in this production) and myopic seamstress affectionately known as "Popeye." Complicating things is another cousin, recently released from the funny farm, to whom "subtlety" is a dirty word.

Erica Farnsworth glitters as Carnelle, the doltish but determined tarnished rose who spends the first half of the play waiting to see if she's even been accepted for the contest (of course she has, or there'd be no second act). Farnsworth captures our hearts with her awkward but sincerely ineffective gestures.

The problem is, when Farnsworth is not on stage, the show tends to deteriorate. Leslie Rivera is charming as the still-beautiful but woefully neurotic Elain (no "e"), constantly fanning herself, and Elspeth Carden conveys a desperately pathetic character as the goofy Popeye, but neither can catch and hold the audience for a sustained period.

That task falls to Jeff Cheezum as the excitable, potentially violent Delmount. Cheezum takes an overwritten character and expands on it, chomping large amounts of scenery in the process. He's quite funny, but his excitability may be unsettling to some audiences.

Two other characters appear in the second act to complicate the situation. Wesley Heid slows the pace as a former flame of Carnelle's, now in ill health, and Natalie Elder charms as the pageant coordinator with an eye (for whatever reason) on Delmount.

The play's folly, structurally, is its tendency to meander in the second act, particularly in the moments following the contest. There are significant chunks of activity here that could be excised without discernible damage.

Set designer Andrew Otero has come up with a pair of effective backdrops, the first in Carnelle's drab living room, the second backstage and outside at the pageant. He also designed the show's striking costumes, including Carnelle's glittering showpiece.

"The Miss Firecracker Contest" is a relatively overlooked, in local productions, example of Henley's strange and complicated world. Playgoers may discover it anew at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "The Miss Firecracker Contest"

Where: Huntington Beach Playhouse, Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 18

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (714) 375-0696

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