Mixed metaphor

The Mixed Blood Theater is nothing if not ambitious. They have started their new season with two comedies, which they are running concurrentlyñyikes! One play begins in the early evening, and then, after enough time to swap the sets, the second begins, starring most of the same cast membersña daring experiment in repertory theater programming that showcases the diversity and adaptability of the company.

However, I must admit I was afraid for my safety during the first show. This is a play about golf, after all, so it inevitably included cast members swinging their clubs at imaginary balls. It was just my luck that they always swung their clubs in my direction, with great speed. I found myself waiting in horror for one of them to lose grip of the club in midair and have it hurtle toward me, embedding itself in my forehead before the word fore could even exit an actor’s mouth.

How to Improve Your Golf Game (written by David Babcock and directed by Michael Kissin) explores the life of a 27-year-old Tiger Woods-to-be. Cheery but deeply troubled, Chip Putnam (Gavin Lawrence) drops out of the PGA tour and moves back in with his preening parents, Barb and Nelson (Aditi Kapil and Warren C. Bowles). The Putnams are such golf enthusiasts that they have decorated every spare surface with Scottish tartan patterns and golf novelties (trophies, a photograph of Chip in a golf ball-shaped frame, and a miniature golf bag that functions as a telephone), and they are not pleased that their son has abandoned his career on the putting green.

Their moods sour further when Chip returns home with a new girlfriend, T.J. (Signe Harriday), an oversized, boisterous young woman with a habit of simply hoisting Chip into her arms and carrying him from place to place as though he were a limp doll. T.J.’s behavior repulses Chip’s parents, to the degree that Barb Putnam begins quietly plotting her murder. We learn through conversations that Barb has, on occasion, tried to run T.J. down with both a car and a lawn mower. In one scene, T.J. chokes on a piece of chicken, begging for help. Barb feigns helplessness, misting the girl in the face with a plastic spray bottle. As can happen with games, golf is of lethal importance to the Putnams. While T.J. manages to survive this encounter (as she collapses, the chunk of chicken hurtles from her mouth, tracing a graceful parabola over Barb’s head), there is a difference between surviving an encounter with your boyfriend’s parents to finding their love. Fortunately, at the Mixed Blood, this also happens to be a very funny road.

 

The other play at the Mixed Blood this season is a riotous comedy detailing five foreigners, who all speak different languages, and who gather in an unkempt New York high school classroom for a “total immersion” English class. This frustrating dilemma forms the basis for The Primary English Class, written by Israel Horovitz and directed by Aditi Kapil.

Debbie Wastba (Amy Colon) is the teacher. Unfortunately for all of them, it is her first teaching assignment and she is the only one who speaks any English. This leads to a series of exasperating, hilarious circumstances, particularly as Wastba’s short temper frays.

The show is performed in seven different languages, but, thankfully, with an interpreter (Gavin Lawrence). None of the members of the class speak any language besides their native tongue, although they are a talkative bunch, babbling little comments at each other and ignoring the blank stares they get in response.

Wastba is badly equipped to handle the aggravation of trying to teach this group, and cannot understand the messages they desperately try to communicate to her (for example, she refuses to let an old Chinese woman use the bathroom), frequently mistaking their gestures toward her for sexual advances. At one point, Debbie begins slapping any student who doesn’t speak English. She even threatens a Japanese girl, saying, “I’ll stuff an eggroll in your mouth, butterfly.”

She cannot hope to be understood, of course, considering that she hasn’t been successful at teaching then anything more than “I can touch the floor.” Eventually, Wastba’s unskilled pedagogy begins to drive her students out the door. “Death by suffocation is apple strudel next to you,” a German man shouts at Debbie before he storms out of the room. She can’t understand, but, thanks to the translator, we can. It is not funny for the German man, who, thanks to a series of comic misunderstanding, believes a killer waits outside the door for him. It is not funny for Wastba, who stands to lose her job along with her students. It is not funny to the remaining classmates, who have problems of their own. But for the audience of the Mixed Blood, every catastrophe that happens onstage adds to the play’s growing hysteria, and every student that rises and exits the Primary English class is another comic triumph.

 

How to Improve Your Golf Game and The Primary English Class play through December 2 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, (612) 338-6131