In general, theater takes a great amount of skill, patience, wit and intestinal and mental fortitude to pull off well. There are countless variables to nail down, like blocking, timing, props, egos and more before a production is ready to share with audiences. Interactive theater throws caution to the wind by incorporating the one uncontrollable element into the show: the audience. Now the entire cast must take every ounce of talent they have and be ready for whatever an audience member might say or do, while still sticking to the script and staying in character. Drunk Talk takes interactive theater into the realm of controlled chaos by setting the show inside a bar and plastering its audience with liquor. The result – while not finely honed to perfection yet – is nothing short of a fantastic and memorable time.
McSwiggins is one of the many dive bars in Hollywood. It’s dingy, dirty, has a malfunctioning toilet and plenty of history. It also has an unbelievably loyal group of barflies, including the seasoned career alcoholic Earl (Bruce Schroffel), the would-be womanizer Kurt (Greg Hoyt), the bar napkin writer Jerry (Lance Whinery), the hopeless bartender groupie Claire (Kirsten Berman), the shady politician (Kim Estes) and the chronically fighting couple Marcy and Joe (Danielle Kasen and Tobias Jelinek). The establishment is run by a young bartender (Steve Sears) and his long suffering busboy (David Alfano). Everyone – including the audience – has come together for one evening to celebrate the last night for McSwiggins before it gets torn down and converted into a youth center. As the patrons drink ever deeper into their glasses fights will break out, histories will be revealed, relationships will end while new ones form and just maybe this group of misfits will come up with a way to save the bar.
The mood is set perfectly from the moment audience members walk into the theater. The set designers have done a wonderful job creating an authentic bar atmosphere for both the performance and audience areas. Stools and benches are available to sit on everywhere while cocktail tables punctuate the floor in the appropriate places. The audience is even invited to purchase alcohol from the stage bar before the show, making theatergoers feel more like patrons rather than spectators. To that end, the cast also does their part to bridge the gap between actor and audience, milling inconspicuously about the bar, mingling with guests and enjoying the show until they suddenly stand up and spout off dialog. It’s a great effect and will definitely surprise those that aren’t familiar with the actors.
For an opening night performance, Drunk Talk ran relatively smoothly and all of the necessary elements jelled well. The writing – by Lance Whinery – is engaging and genuinely funny, like when Jerry discovers that the bartender isn’t pursuing acting…in Hollywood. “You are blowing my mind,” Jerry says with outrageous disbelief. Each character feels fully developed and could easily leave the bar with the audience at the end of the show and exist in the real world. The dialog is also believable – for the most part – and full of natural punch lines that never seem like they’re trying too hard. Of course the material is only as good as the players presenting it. Thankfully, the cast does a commendable job overall with only a few nitpicky complaints like dropped props and one seemingly forgotten line.
While the cast is more than competent, there are noticeable disparities in performances as some actors don’t project as much as they should or don’t look as comfortable with their characters or material yet. Nevertheless, each actor steals the show for respective moments – whether it’s Kim Estes leaping over the bar top to serve drinks, David Alfano delivering a scathing review of everyone’s lives or Kirsten Berman beating Greg Hoyt in strip Tetris. Standout performances, however, are given by both Tobias Jelinek and Danielle Kasen. Their dynamic acting and combative stage relationship bring a high level of energy to the otherwise mellow production.
Drunk Talk is produced and directed by Thomas Blake who is also the producer/director of Los Angeles’ other hit interactive theater production Point Break LIVE! Blake has done a great job with Drunk Talk as well, giving the characters excellent blocking so that they make good use of the space and never pull focus unintentionally. Unlike PBL!, however, Drunk Talk only runs roughly an hour-long and doesn’t quite reach the levels of absurdity that PBL! does. Perhaps Drunk Talk isn’t trying to recreate the PBL! experience – perhaps it doesn’t need to – but the seeds are definitely planted for the kind of community experience that PBL! veterans have come to enjoy. For instance, whenever a character says the name of the bar everyone is supposed to yell “McSwiggins!” and toast. Additionally, Earl sings a silly bar song to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” and it’s easy to imagine the whole audience singing along with drinks raised as soon as the show becomes popular.
Drunk Talk isn’t perfect yet – how can it be after only one show? It could stand for a little more energy, another half hour of content and a little snappier line delivery. Whatever other opening night deficiencies it might have, the most glaring is the shortage of audience interaction. Even though each audience member is supposedly an individual bar patron, it currently feels like the cast is acting around the audience rather than with it, which will require more ad-lib. The best extemporaneous material usually comes when actors look for ways to make material they’ve performed over and over again feel fresh for themselves. Since Blake, Whinery and the rest of the talented cast have crafted an entertaining, funny product with potential bursting from ever seam, there’s no reason to doubt that Drunk Talk will reach those lofty heights of spontaneous comedy.
Check out Drunk Talk next time you’re in Los Angeles.