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While 'Cookin' With Gus,' Invisible Theatre forgot the sizzle

Playwright Jim Brochu became a good pal of Lucille Ball in her last years, and it's easy to see why they got along so well. Brochu's Cookin' With Gus, now playing at Invisible Theatre, could double as an episode of I Love Lucy.

This is a good thing if you're in the mood for sheer frivolity, but not so great if you want your comedy to be driven by character rather than situation.

The situation is this: Syndicated food columnist Augusta (Gussie) Richardson loves cooking more than anything else--including, it sometimes seems, her adoring live-in boyfriend, Walter. For 18 years, she's been ducking Walter's monthly proposals of marriage for reasons that aren't quite clear to either of them (she actually is quite keen on the guy), and now she's got a great excuse to put him off a bit longer: Her agent, Bernie, has swung her a deal for a daily national TV show.

All Gus has to do is shoot a pilot in her home for the producers to approve. Trouble is, however outgoing Gus may be, when she gets in front of a camera or does any sort of public speaking, she collapses like a brutalized soufflé. This is fine with Walter, who resents the time Gus devotes to her work instead of him (he retired early after inventing some sort of valve).

What to do? Well, it just so happens that Walter has become an amateur hypnotist. Gus asks him to hypnotize away her fear of public speaking, but once Walter has her in a trance, he can't resist planting a suggestion that could send the pilot up in smoke faster than a pan of overheated oil.

The play has plenty of funny bits, but those bits amount to little more than mixed nuts on a dollop of whipped cream. The script is as shallow as a cookie sheet.

But it's not hard to tell why Invisible Theatre's managing artistic director, Susan Claassen, selected this show. There's no way she could resist the role of the next-door neighbor, an alcoholic Jewish fortune-telling gypsy princess who under hypnosis enacts the life cycle of a chicken. It's the next best thing to Lady Macbeth. Claassen plays this part to the hilt; in this kitchen, the goulash isn't the only thing that's stewed.

Claassen was probably also looking for an amusing vehicle for her core Invisible Theatre "family" of actors, and under the direction of IT stalwart Gail Fitzhugh, they do seem to be having fun, despite a few problems. Liz McMahon and James Blair as Gus and Walter convey real affection for each other, even if they do fall into a slightly artificial declamation of their lines as if they were on a TV sitcom (which they are, minus the TV). Jack Neubeck gets what he can out of the role of Bernie, the agent, even while playing down the character's slick-operator elements.

Some things go oddly awry in this production, though, and I'm not just referring to the accidental blackout and the blender that didn't work on opening night. Weirdly, much of the climactic food fight takes place with the combatants crouching behind a counter, hidden from view. It's as if the prop masters' union and the costumers' union had insisted on separate handfuls of spaghetti for each use, and so an actor must duck down for some concealed dresser to plop a pile of "costume" noodles on her head. There's got to be some other explanation--this is a right-to-work state--but I can't imagine why Fitzhugh and the cast would shy away from the funniest element of physical comedy: the moment of impact of food on face.

Cookin' With Gus is not an entirely tepid show, but it would have more sizzle if everyone from playwright to director had turned up the heat.

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