As the Hershey Company so sagaciously observed, sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t. Hershey may have been commenting solely on the relative, momentary gastronomic worth of an Almond Joy versus a Mounds, but the philosophical underpinnings of the statement support similar surmises across innumerable areas of inquiry. Which is to say, sometimes you feel like a deep meditation on the nature of art and artists; sometimes you don’t.
When I first read the description of The Most Deserving, it was touted as a comedy, but it seemed to me that it would be one in which laughter took a back seat to social commentary on the nature of our affirmative action, politically-correct-to-a fault society. How happy I am to report, then, that this world premiere by Catherine Trieschmann, she of How the World Began fame, is more Seinfeld than Steppenwolf. This is a play about nothing in the most wonderful sense of the phrase.
Set in rural Kansas in the present day, The Most Deserving concerns itself with a county arts council attempting to award a $20,000 grant to a local, amateur artist with “an under-represented American voice.” It was that last bit that had me concerned about Trieschmann’s motives and the effect they might have on the laughs-to-lines ratio, but as soon as I realized that she had no intention of tackling the myriad issues, social and otherwise, surrounding this hot-button topic in the age of immigration reform, shifting ethnic demographics and the like, I found myself relaxing into a hilarious, lighter than air two-hour diversion.
The Ellis County Arts Council is presided over by Jolene Atkinson (Judith Hawking). She’s worked hard to carve out this small niche of semi-importance for herself, and she will do anything in her power to keep the funding flowing in an area of the country where, apparently, art ranks well below farm reports and high school football scores in terms of importance. Jolene wants the grant money to go to the artistically questionable, 1/16th- Sioux son of a prominent and wealthy businessman who, not so coincidentally, holds the purse strings for the art council’s future.
Jolene is joined on the council by her husband, Ted (Sam Gregory), an aging hippy-cum-hipster with minimal drive and a wandering eye. Jolene’s foil is a community college art professor, Liz Chang (Rebecca Hirota), who uses her place on the council to advocate that the grant be awarded to Everett Whiteside (Jonathan Earl Peck), a wheelchair-bound African-American who uses trash to create religiously inspired sculptures. The council is rounded out by 40-watt bulb Dwayne Dean (Craig Bockhorn) and Edie Kelch (Jeanne Paulsen), a widow whose generous contribution doubled the size of the soon to be awarded grant.
The thing I enjoyed most about The Most Deserving was that it gives every actor at least one scene in which to truly strut his or her stuff, and each actor makes the most of the opportunity. Early on, Jolene attempts to turn up the heat in her and Ted’s boudoir, but the lingerie, massages and come hither looks turn out to be calculated solely to ensure Ted will vote her way regarding the grant award. Later, in the very same bedroom, Ted, clad in some memorable underwear of his own, makes an earth-shattering revelation that is received as a jest by his emotionally colorblind wife.
After a torrent of curse words and repeated descriptions of how the IRS is sodomizing him, Everett, who stands astride the thin line between “eccentric” and “certifiably insane” closes the final scene of the first act by dropping a totally unexpected racist bomb. When Liz finally comes clean about her own motivations with respect to Everett, the moment couldn’t ring more true. Dwayne’s nonchalant description to Jolene of the most intimate details of his surprisingly progressive sex life had the audience in tears. And when Edie drunkenly holds forth to Liz and Jolene about the reality of her seemingly storybook marriage, the play almost needs a pause for everyone to quiet their lingering titters.
The Most Deserving deserves a couple of hours of your time.
The Most Deserving plays at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 17. Tickets start at $47. For tickets and information, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.