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[Theater reviews]

King pinned
Cooking with Elvis does


Cooking with Elvis
By Lee Hall. Directed by Jeff Zinn. Set design by Dan Joy. Costumes by Mary Jo Horner. Lighting by Christopher Ostrum. Sound by Stephen Russell. Musical numbers arranged and performed by Allan Sheinfeld on keyboard, guitar, and vocals, with Rikki Bates on drums, engineered and mixed by Bruce Maclean. With Marianna Bassham, Danielle Delgado, Colin Hamell, and Gip Hoppe. At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through September 2.

The problem with bursting on the scene with a stunning debut lies in finding the juice for more. Lee Hall won an Oscar nomination last year for his poignant, offbeat Billy Elliot filmscript, which was based on his experiences as a young boy growing up in Newcastle. Now we get the play Cooking with Elvis, which garnered raves at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s a dark, Joe Orton–ish send-up of the mean little lives of the blue-collar Brits. And if Hall also drew this one from his own family experience, it’s a wonder he grew up to function on any level, let alone as a playwright.

Elvis Presley dead is evidently as much of an obsession in England as he is in America, and that’s one of the things on Hall’s mind. Cooking with Elvis’s central character, called simply Dad, is a former Elvis impersonator who has survived an automobile accident as a " cabbage. " Or so he is branded by Mam, his sex-starved, alcoholic, anorectic wife. Dad is a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or understand what’s happening around him. The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Jill, has taken to food for the same reasons her mother has taken to drink — to appease a need for love and find a measure of comfort. The household enlarges when Mam picks up and brings home Stuart, a dumb clunk of a baker who services the entire family in one way or another as the play unfolds.

The plot is merely an excuse on which to hang the behavior of this foursome, as ripe a bunch as ever hung from a tree. Sex is only part of the preoccupation; cooking according to a guide that might have been penned by Titus Andronicus is another. And the whole of it is mixed in with flashbacks to Dad in his Elvis get-ups grinding his hips and stroking his sideburns in time to the King’s greatest hits. The gags come fast and often, but the laughter is drawn from a wicked sort of recognition rather than from any particularly witty turns of the language.

Credit director Jeff Zinn for loading the script with a lexicon of sight gags that are set off splendidly by Dan Joy’s set for the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater production, the play’s US premiere. Joy’s family room includes a painting on velvet that’s hung over a sofa upholstered in a leopard-print fabric. The dream sequences — yes, Virginia, there are plenty of those — are blocked into an eerie chamber/closet at stage right that swings open to disclose more surprises. The riffs from the Presley canon sound like the real thing.

Gip Hoppe, WHAT resident playwright, founding member, and co–artistic director, must have called in his markers to win the role of Dad, a plum for any actor. He’s a hoot, whether slumped over in his wheelchair or stuffed into a white Elvis stretch-rayon jumpsuit complete with sequins, gold-lamé cape, and dark-thatched fright wig. At first the Elvis songs are vaudeville-type interludes. As the action heats up — and you can take that literally, whether the characters are screwing or cooking — Hoppe’s Elvis trades lip-synching for evangelical pronouncements on his megalo-messianic mission to counter the pestilence of the nation and " bring my people home. Glory hallelujah! "

Marianna Bassham gives a virtuoso performance as the adolescent Jill, who deals with pulsing hormones as well as with a variety of appetites. She’s waiflike, frenetic, evil, and adorable, almost within the same intake of breath. Danielle Delgado revels in the one-liners that she throws off while barely stifling the self-loathing and depths of Mam’s misery. And Colin Hamell has mastered the art of the double take, so that Stuart is a clown as well as a stud, and appealing when giving in to his desires.

Cooking with Elvis is no match for Hall’s achievement with Billy Elliot: its awkward first-act structure lays down the exposition with a shovel when a trowel might have done the job, and the writer seems to lose his nerve at the end, where he lurches into sentimentality. But the sheer zaniness of the play’s juxtaposition of elements combined with this smart production makes the evening worth a trip to Wellfleet — if you can get a ticket. Even without Elvis, WHAT regularly sells out every performance.

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001