The sharp wit of playwright Gary Ray Stapp's dialogue goes a long way to overcome the occasional humorless spots in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's production of Love Thy Neighbor. And when the cast is delivering Stapp's most amusing banter, director Eugenia Giebel's presentation titillates sometimes to the point of tears, particularly as Jan Golz's self-important, riff-raff-hating busybody Leona Crump squares off against Diane Greenwood's dolled-up, somewhat pompous Tupperware and Avon saleswoman Ava. The two create sparks of entertaining disdain for each other, and best suggest the overall tone Stapp apparently intended for his play.
Stapp's comedy is not consistent, with a few too many awkwardly paced, unfunny scenes mucking up the fun, and Golz forced to deliver too many dry monologues (which she struggled to remember during Friday's performance). But his humor, and Golz's portrayal, are at their best when Stapp's script gets catty, as when a character is described as wearing "hoop earrings big enough for dogs to jump through" or - after Ava mentions that she's considering selling Mary Kay products - Leona retorts, "I thought you'd already jumped into that. Face first." Stapp also manages to include some twists and surprises in his plot about Leona's efforts to keep people she doesn't approve of from buying the house across the street from her. Plus, while it's easy to figure out the identity of the wanted thief burglarizing the neighborhood, the climax of Stapp's play is something of an amusing shock, with yet another surprise lurking in the play's denouement.
Golz, whose comically acerbic tone was a bright spot in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Ghost of a Chance earlier this year, once again shines when she's delivering barbs, which she does as the nosy neighbor who is proud of her prize-winning marigolds, knows everything about every neighbor, and is willing to steal lawn ornaments if it'll drive away her new hillbilly neighbors. It could be argued that Golz's Leona never rises to the point of being a woman so mean that her neighbors would hate her, which is key to a major plot point; instead, other characters seem to overlook Leona's crotchetiness - thinking, "That's just the way she is" - and still like her. Yet while it may be a storyline problem, it's not a show-sinker, as Golz's sharp-tongued Leona is just too funny, and renders the arguably off-pitch characterization a still-welcome one.
While Ava is amusing, boasting all of Greenwood's delightful acting charms, the double-cast performer's Mawtilda Feeshenshelbafield - the mother of the woman who bought the house across the street from Leona - is a stitch. With her ill-fitting dress reminiscent of Granny Clampett and unkempt gray wig with pink curlers sporadically attached to it, Greenwood completes the character with a whooping "How do?" greeting and yokel swagger to match. In contrast, Stacy McKean Herrick goes against her usual type as Maw's daughter Gafina Hambefferschmidt. Dressed in designer Suzanne DeReu's fantastically appropriate costume - yellow scarf tying back a reddish-brown wig, a white lace blouse under a pink vest, a green plastic beaded necklace, and green, yellow, pink, and white swirled pants - and with smoky eyeshadow that runs from lash to eyebrow without variation, Herrick's Gafina is the epitome of new money, with a personality as boisterous as her ensemble. She's bold and colorful, with her slight Southern accent and breathy pretense loaded with fun, and has me longing to see Herrick in more character roles in the future.
These actors are joined by Elizabeth DeReu's pleasantly vapid Judy Harrison - a friendly, ever-forgiving, cooking-talent-impaired neighbor - and her smart, ever-joshing husband Paul, played by the remarkably believable Alex Wolking, whose responses and retorts seem genuinely spontaneous. Archie Williams Jr., as Leona's husband Albert, is rarely seen in the show, as he's almost always hidden under a blanket while lying on the couch, yet the performer earns laughs with his curt answers to Leona's questions. Gary Clark leaves a pleasing impression as the postman George, a jovial fellow who sours under Leona's biting comments. Jim Strauss manages to walk the fine line between entertaining bumpkin and creepy stalker as Leona's new neighbor and unrelenting suitor Turner. And Terri Nelson gets to play her Rose Bush - the realtor who sells the home across the street - with a fairly low-key demeanor, while Eric Noyd plays Officer Frank Doonan with an amusingly unauthoritative simplicity.
Though imperfect, Richmond Hill's production of Love Thy Neighbor offers plenty of laughs and welcome variances from some of the actors' typical characterizations, namely Greenwood's and Herrick's. Stapp's taunts are, for the most part, fresh, and the actors required to deliver them do so with a gusto worthy of their wisecracking pointedness.
Love Thy Neighbor runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through August 25, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.