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Running on Empty

Plucky Vagabonds Squeeze An Entertaining Something Out Of Playwrights’ Nothing Comedy

WHERE’S MY COFFEE?: Stephanie Ranno (center) is the resident diva in the movie within the play.

By John Barry | Posted 6/27/2007

Epic Proportions

By Larry Coen and David Crane

At the Vagabond Players Theatre through July 8

After their energized production of Molière's Tartuffe, the Vagabond Players cap their season with an offspring of the ADD age: an 80-minute one-act play that pokes fun at a three-and-a-half hour movie, The Ten Commandments, which few moviegoers today would be capable of sitting through in the first place. So it's an easy punching bag that the Vags take to the limit. Epic Proportions is a load of fun, but it also may cause some head-scratching. It's a little more than a one-act, but a little less than anything else.

Epic Proportions is written according to the rules of television, but it's allowed to unfold a little beyond its natural length. Writers Larry Coen and David Crane (the latter the creator of and writer for Friends) start off quickly and develop a witty, but not all that deep, meeting of minds and form. It's skillfully put together, and the pace never slows. But when the screen turns off, it's not easy to figure out what the point is.

Two young men arrive on the scene of a historical epic and, as extras, deal with the petty indignities and small triumphs of life in the crowd scenes. In the end, the little guys come out, more or less, on top. Benny (Tom Saporito) is looking for his big chance, and his brother Phil (Kenny Johnson) is just trying to get him back home. What they're acting in-though it's never exactly defined-is a biblical/Roman/Greek historical epic of the Cecil B. DeMille type. It's not The Ten Commandments but a goulash of all the iconic images involved.

Any Rep Stage season-ticket holders in the audience might notice the central premise is amazingly like that of Marie Jones' Stones in His Pocket, which had its local premiere several months ago at the Rep. Like Epic Proportions, it was written in 1999. The difference is that Stones dealt with the people being represented. Real Irish Paddies were acting in a movie about real Irish Paddies, and an undercurrent of resentment surfaced.

Epic Proportions doesn't have much to do with anything. The butt of the joke seems to be that anyone would bother to put history on the big screen in the first place. And the jokes are predictable: the howling gladiators, the prima donna Queen Cleopatra, the slaves, and the plebian extras. Basically, to steal from Seinfeld, it's a play about nothing, with a small "n."

Given that, it's a blast. The real talent here is Stephanie Ranno, who plays the aforementioned queen-a big-screen diva. She may have taken the character a bit further, since she adds a touching vulnerability to the persona of the stage hog: Although her character has a way of grabbing the spotlight, when the attention switches the Queen stands by, pleading for a chance to shine again. Ranno approaches this part with the same poise that she exhibited in The Mineola Twins at the Spotlighters earlier this season.

Meanwhile, Saporito lends Benny vulnerable innocence, but as the play progresses a hard-core determination starts to manifest itself. Phil, however, follows the almost opposite track, as he opens with a lucky break, winds up taking over as director pro tempore, and then, at the end, loses the girl. In that role, Johnson takes command-and gives it up-as required. You wish the play ran another 20 minutes, because the relationship between the brothers seems to be leading somewhere.

Floating above it all, in a state of abstracted self-absorption, is DeWitt (as in, DeMille) himself, played by John Sadowsky. Sadowsky also provides the voice-over narration, which gives the director an interesting deus ex machina touch. Crane and Coen don't go much further than that, though, in putting their finger on what exactly DeMille was trying to do.

But the introduction of agency would have been a play about something, opening up a whole new can of worms. Coen and Crane, like all good sitcom writers, know when comedy-by-inertia starts to turn into comedy-by-default. They take the joke as far as it can go, and not an inch farther. And this tightly knit group of young Vagabond Players does it justice-maybe a little more than it deserves.

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