Review: Topher Payne’s ‘Morningside’ can’t quite balance zing — and sting

Performances are strong, though, in Roswell playhouse’s fifth mainstage world premiere by Atlanta playwright


It’s the day of a baby shower at a well-appointed house in Morningside, but the lady of the house and grandma-to-be, Grace Bouchard Driscoll, is upstairs, hiding out.

While her dutiful sister and friend fuss over flowers, Champagne flutes and cookies from Alon’s Bakery (natch), and her caustic sister swigs from a bottle of expensive vodka, we learn that the hostess’s 36-year marriage is on the fritz.

Eventually, Grace floats down the staircase, not messy and hungover, but immaculately turned out. Newly blond, looking confident and assured, she likens her situation to the attack on the White House during the War of 1812. The marauding Brits found a table set for a party of 60, so “the soldiers sat down, they had a lovely meal, and then they set fire to the place,” she announces grandly.

As it turns out, Grace’s withering assessment is a painfully accurate description of what’s about to happen in Topher Payne’s “Morningside,” the Atlanta playwright’s fifth mainstage world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. Though the story starts off as a snarky romp in which characters toss off one-liners like candy wrappers, it’s no pacifier.

A saucy comedy about strong Southern women (think “Steel Magnolias” and “Crimes of the Heart”) eventually turns into a messy pile of dirty laundry, and issues of sibling rivalry, race, class, maternity, and human decency litter the floor like spent party favors.

Mother-to-be Devyn (Gina Rickicki) is an icy perfectionist who appears to be checking off all the boxes in the success department (career, husband, baby). Her younger sister, Clancy (Kate Donadio), on the other hand, is a party girl with a messy life. A tug of war over a stuffed teddy bear from their childhood triggers a battle royale.

As their mother (the divine Shelly McCook), their orderly aunt from Dallas (Ann Wilson), their famous architect aunt from New York (Ellen McQueen) and various neighbors, friends and colleagues look on, the sisters air old grievances and instigate new ones, and the audience is feted to a script that wanders off into dark territory before being tied up with a neat if slightly tattered bow of reconciliation — for both sets of sisters.

As a writer and thespian personality, Payne is a formidable combination of acid and honey. (Case in point: He writes films for the Hallmark Channel and will play David Sedaris’ disgruntled Macy’s elf, Crumpet, in Horizon Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries” beginning Nov. 17.)

Payne would be a really fierce enfant terrible if he didn’t have such a heart of gold. Here, as in many other works, he shows an understanding of women that is incisive and smart, though more of “Golden Girls” and “Designing Women” than Tennessee Williams and Tracy Letts.

Directed by Shannon Eubanks, “Morningside” makes a solid case for Payne’s considerable literary ambition and talent. The performances (nine actors total) are universally strong. (Love LaLa Cochran as Devyn’s wacky co-worker in a Disney princess gown; love seeing Dad’s Garage regular Rickicki in a more substantive role.) Set designer Kat Conley’s approximation of an expensively modernized 1920s Morningside bungalow is impeccably crafted. And the dialogue, right up to the lulu that ends the first act, runs like clockwork.

But as deft and bristling as the story is, its tone shift can be jarring, as it layers on issue after issue: family tension, workplace drama, divorce, abandonment, pregnancy, life vs. choice, alcoholism, incurable illness, suicidal tendencies, narcissism, last-minute forgiveness and hope for change. “Everything but the kitchen sink,” as my date put it. (And this from a Morningside resident, mother of two grown daughters and a recent grandmother!)

Pregnant though it is with ideas, “Morningside” isn’t as thoughtful and provocative as it could be, and the recurring jokes about pigs parading down Peachtree, half-empty bags of Doritos and diapers filled with gooey candy bars will only get you so far.

“Morningside” is too long, it needs a red pen, and Payne would be well served to figure out how to strike a balance between lightweight comedy and serious drama. Mixing bubbles and vinegar, zing and sting, is no easy task, but I have every reason to believe that if anyone can get it right, Payne can. Give him time, love and support, and good things will follow.

THEATER REVIEW

“Morningside”

Through Nov. 12. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $29. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org.

Bottom line: Needs a bit more time in the oven.

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