The Pumpkin Pie Show
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
October 17, 2008
I've often wondered why they call it The Pumpkin Pie Show. There is no pie served. Generally, the stories are not sweet. So what is it about pumpkin pie? I think it has to do with coming together. Storytelling, like pumpkin pie and the rest of a holiday feast, brings us together. The stories told over a holiday meal are a slice of our heritage and that slice, like The Pumpkin Pie Show, speaks volumes about the human condition.
It's their tenth anniversary and they've just returned from an international tour with all the polish one would expect from a long-running, wildly successful show. Performers Clay McLeod Chapman and Hanna Cheek are so full of energy from start to finish that if we could harness it we may be able to decrease our dependence of foreign oil. In the past the show has been described as dark and twisted but it is also filled with beauty and agony...often simultaneously. All the stories are written by Chapman. His writing is a drawer full of everything we fear but refuse to throw out. He rummages through this drawer pulling out items long forgotten or unsuitable for display. Chapman's literary prowess goes unmatched in the world of downtown storytelling.
The night begins with Chapman and Cheek playing a quick rock-paper-scissors to determine who goes first. They have 14 playing cards with the titles of stories on them and they draw from the deck like they are setting up a magic trick. So the show is different every night, but I'll briefly describe the stories I saw.
The first story, "Bride's Maid," is told by Cheek. She plays the jealous and extremely drunk sister of the bride who has called for the attention of the wedding guests so she can spill her bitterness and insecurities all over them. Like many of Chapman's stories it begins somewhat innocently but soon becomes darker and darker until it's just not as funny as it was in the beginning. Cheek drains her martini glass of every last drop just like she milks the role for every laugh. While she is absolutely hilarious in the part, she tends to play the drunk rather than fighting the drunkenness. Still, Cheek is immensely magnetic. I found it very hard to look away from her because I didn't want to miss a single gesture or twitch.
Cheek also tells the story of a circus girl who performs the amazing feat of hanging from her teeth, however this career has affected her love life in a hysterical though rather unfortunate way. Cheek finishes the night with a story that is tragic and heart-wrenching. She plays a nurse caring for horribly injured soldiers. For this piece, Cheek fills the air with her stark honesty until every breath the audience takes is heavy with the reality of this story. It is a sobering and thought-provoking way to end the night.
Chapman tells two stories, both with the mostly physical help of Cheek. The first is called "Oldsmobile." This is one of my favorite of Chapman's stories. It is a perfect example of Chapman's ability to present beautiful agony. It is about a couple in their waning years. The wife has Alzheimer's and in her dementia she begins to relive their past. The husband goes right along with it because, as he sees it, they are really there reliving their first date, their first kiss, and all of the memories that would have slipped into time unnoticed had she not lost her mind. Chapman plays this character with quiet candor as if he were whispering it to us as we sleep. His performance here is moving and tender.
For his second story, titled "Late Bloomer," he plays the complete opposite (though the characters' voices sound similar). He is a grade-school kid having his first experience with a sex education class or as he calls it "an evil ritual." The strange creatures drawn on the chalkboard confuse, enrage, and finally titillate him until a "slimy beast" is released from within him (and onto the floor). Chapman's energy is quite appropriately a force of nature in this role. Sweat shoots from his forehead like bullets from a bald Uzi. This piece is perfectly and ironically placed as the show's climax.
The Pumpkin Pie Show is a must-see. It is a staple of the downtown indie theatre scene. If you haven't treated yourself to a slice of this pie you had better gobble up your share before it makes its move to the big time.