Popcorn Falls, James Hindman’s new two-hander, begins with a burst of energy. With “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana blaring through the speakers, the performers, Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, sprint about the stage preparing the props, costumes, and set pieces for the screwball play to follow. Indeed, the mad dash is intended to set the scene for the evening’s romp in which the two actors play a combined total of 21 different characters.
Alas, the play, as directed by Christian Borle, does not consistently sustain this vitality throughout, and while the actors work hard, the material does not rise to the level of lunacy and laugh-out-loud silliness the first few minutes presumably presage. Regrettably, the farcical comedy limps along through most of its 80-minute running time, finally arriving at a point in which the reason for the vigorous prelude is revealed.
Popcorn Falls takes place in a small town somewhere in rural America. This once thriving community, which can boast of George Washington picnicking in its park, faces eradication because the titular waterfalls have all but dried up. Mr. Doyle (Souhrada), a villainous corporate autocrat and builder of a dam that destroyed the falls, threatens to turn the entire township into a massive sewage-treatment plant. Therefore, the Popcorn Falls denizens, who incidentally prefer to be called “kernels,” are in danger of losing their homes and property unless Mr. Trundle (Heller), the sincere but ineffectual mayor, can save the town by producing a play within one week.
Without a theater and without a script, Trundle and his guy Friday, a good-natured janitor named Joe (Souhrada), gather a group of townsfolk to undertake the Sisyphean task. The plot’s farcical engine runs on the ludicrousness of a bunch of misfits and clueless amateurs trying to put on a show.
At the heart of the play is a story of burgeoning love between Trundle and Becky, the young proprietress of the local pub. While the humor of the play-within-the-play rehearsals seems forced and shrill, the Trundle and Becky scenes are gently moving. In fact, the production’s most inspired moment occurs when each actor takes a turn at playing the young woman, and within the context of the scene and the character interactions, the conceit works beautifully.
Heller and Souhrada are a charming and charismatic pair, and fortified with simple gestures, spot-on vocal intonations, and adroit costume changes, they move effortlessly and effectively in and out of the various portrayals (especially Souhrada, who plays most of the oddball characters and is particularly poignant as Becky). However, unlike other plays of the genre in which two actors assume multiple roles, Popcorn Falls does not give the actors enough zaniness and incisive cleverness to shine fully in their morphing characterizations. Hindman’s writing lacks, for instance, the bitingly sardonic humor of the Texan potboiler Greater Tuna; the theatrical bravura of the campy, Victorian melodrama The Mystery of Irma Vep; or the alternatingly comic and heartbreaking flashes in the Irish weepy Stones in His Pockets, three plays that have since helped define the form.
Hindman instead relies on strained bits of humor, such as jokes at the expense of a one-armed man or a phantom squirrel that is loose in the theater/town hall. Relying on familiar character types, the play is peopled with familiar provincial rubes, including an eccentric old-maid librarian, a doddering old man, and a vapid teenager, who is obsessed with her phone and has a bad case of adolescent upspeak.
Tim Mackabee’s town hall set astutely evokes a feeling of provincial Americana while also offering enough passages and openings to facilitate split-second comings and goings amid the comic hijinks. Additionally, Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Joseph LaCorte’s costumes subtly and efficiently help distinguish the various locales and the assorted townsfolk.
Popcorn Falls ends as it begins—with a flurry of activity. It is a nice payoff, but the visit to the quaint town hardly seemed worth the trip.
Popcorn Falls plays through Jan. 6, 2019, at the Davenport Theatre (354 W. 45th St). Evening performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, visit telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6200. For additional information about the production, visit www.popcornfalls.com.