Like the great film comedy Caddyshack, the new play Popcorn Falls makes early and prominent use of a rodent. Here the little varmint is a squirrel, played by a stuffed animal (in an uncredited cameo) and featured in the playbill art, holding up a sign that screams, “Save our town!”—a first clue that this show’s social satire isn’t out to bite us any more than, well, its mascot.
Popcorn playwright James Hindman, perhaps best known for the frothy and fondly remembered musical sendup Pete ‘n’ Keely, has turned his attention to small-town politics—a subject far less potentially revolting right now than the national variety. I happened to catch a preview the afternoon Brett Kavanaugh was voted onto the Supreme Court, following two weeks of partisan ugliness and sanctimony (on both sides, frankly). A light comedy about a town that resolves to avoid bankruptcy by opening a theater—“proving,” as the synopsis in Hindman’s text puts it, “that art can save the world”—seemed like a perfect tonic, perhaps one that could even help restore my faith in humanity.
My eleven-year-old daughter, who accompanied me, was eager to catch Popcorn for a different reason: to witness the directorial debut of one of her idols, Christian Borle, among the most charming (I agree) and comedically astute stage stars of his generation. Borle has recruited a pair of facile fellow spirits, Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, to play, respectively, Popcorn Falls’ beleaguered new mayor, Mr. Trundle, and a janitor named Joe—and to juggle those roles with a smorgasbord of local color.
Hindman’s breezy text requires the two actors to switch characters on a dime throughout—no small feat, as the supporting parts range from a German immigrant obsessed with Fred Astaire movies to a self-obsessed teenage girl to the cat-toting town librarian, described in the character listings as “a bit Amanda Wingfield.” There’s also the tyrannical budget director who wants to turn the town into a sewage plant, and Becky, the sweet-natured single mom who used to love Joe but is now attracted to Mr. Trundle—both drawn in hilarious detail by Souhrada, who also makes Becky gently poignant.
As Mr. Trundle, Heller also has to play the straight man in a story that flirts with sentimentality from time to time, but happily never strays too far off its fundamentally farcical course. Borle keeps the pace brisk and the tone playful as the residents of Popcorn Falls are enlisted to help their mayor, who’s running from his own demons, help them pay off the town’s debts. The let’s-put-on-a-show vibe established by Borle and the design team, with bare-bones, sometimes winkingly cheesy effects—the red lights and smoke that materialize when that budget director appears, cackling, for instance—are perfectly suited to a play in which the characters are trying to do just that, with neither experience nor any apparent affinity for their task.
It’s not hard to root for them; at about 80 minutes long, Popcorn Falls never wears out its welcome. In a flash, we’re returned to the real world, grateful to Hindman and Borle and the dexterous performers, and fake vermin, for the reprieve.
Popcorn Falls opened October 8, 2018, at the Davenport Theatre and runs through November 25. Tickets and information: popcornfalls.com