Reportedly, it was Spalding Gray's favorite joke: A skeleton walks into a bar and orders a glass of beer and a mop. If comedian Molly Buckley's brief one-person show, Harvey Wallbanger, is a bit more fleshed out than Gray's dry barroom jape, it still burns up a fairly amusing half hour or so answering the question we've all asked ourselves at some point: What does it take for a stranger to get a drink around here?
But exactly when that half hour takes place depends on several factors. On Buckley's opening night last Friday at Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater, a 9:30 show didn't start until 10:15 after an opening act started and finished late—and co-directors David Greenslade and John Reitz "warmed things up" with 15 minutes of serviceable improv comedy. (The DSI Web page lists local comedian openers for each night of its run.)
Actually, Buckley's shaggy dog tale turns into a "wrong drink for the room" story—the particular alcoholic beverage one never orders in a given type of bar. Like Budweiser in an Irish pub, flirtinis in a biker bar or a Boone's Farm white wine spritzer at the Ritz, a newbie walks into the Famous Seamus Bar in this addled one-act and orders a Harvey Wallbanger, a concoction of vodka, orange juice and Galliano, an obscure Italian liqueur.
I've just given you the plot in a nutshell. Harvey Wallbangers are a bad idea at Famous Seamus because of the, um, unique chemistry among a sextet of barflies, a Southern barkeep named Karen and a DJ whose private hell is known to the rest of us as karaoke night.
Buckley's stand-up chops are as evident as her skills at mimicry. But in pursuing long-form theatrical work, this clearly talented artist has more to explore when it comes to character development and playwriting. We cherished our time with meek, wounded little Beth, whom liquor slowly turns into the Dr. Jekyll of the karaoke mike, but took points off for Gary, a generic goomba loser who never convinces us of his scripted paranoid streak. While we barely get a glimpse of Alfie, proper Pru's acerbic husband, we enjoyed Renata—who's probably still waiting to hear back from Jersey Shore—as she traded barbs with Nancy, a geriatric foul-mouth with a voice like George Burns and a million stories from her days as a cheerleader in the early '60s for the Houston Oilers.
To be clear, Buckley hasn't fully developed most of these characters. But with Nancy, and particularly with Beth, we see glimpses of an artist finding not only the absurdity but the unique truth about a character, and then humanizing their quirks and Achilles' heels to the point where empathy could be possible. It's the quality that made the early work of Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Jones great. Apparently Buckley's capable of it, though we rarely see it on stage just now. The most promising thing about Harvey Wallbanger is that, 30 minutes in, you get the sense we've only scratched the surfaces of most of the folks on stage. Further work is clearly indicated. Here's hoping she sticks with it. Cheers.