Fresno City College gives Adam Bock’s “The Drunken City” a rousing college try, but it didn’t give me much more than a slight buzz. The production, which follows three women friends celebrating a bachelorette party that goes sour in New York, is an uneven experience. (It continues through Saturday.)
As you might glean from the title, the actors spend much of their time on stage playing drunk, which is a big challenge. The ability to convey inebriation without actually taking a drink is difficult even for veteran professionals to pull off convincingly. Sure, it’s easy to slur words and stumble, but doing so without it coming across as merely “playing drunk” is tougher. The talented City College actors in this show are scrupulously prepared and make a tightly knit ensemble, but they’re swamped a little by the extended drunken behavior called for in the script.
The show gets off to a slow start with a prologue introducing us to the three women, who all happen to be engaged. Marnie (Bridget Manders), the bride-to-be, had hoped to spend her big night in New York City with her four best girlfriends, but two of them had to bow out. (One broke her foot.) So she’s left with Melissa (Lena Agulian) and Linda (Jochebed Smith), who vow to soldier on. We even get to see photos of each of their respective fiancees.
It’s an odd, somewhat stuffy and far too exposition-heavy way to start the play. Bock uses the scene to inject a portentous note into the proceedings, casting the city as a “dark, dangerous creature.” (The moment, and further efforts later on by the playwright to expand on the ominous theme, including a surreal musical interlude, comes across as a little pretentious.) I kept wondering what would have happened if Bock had cut the whole scene and started the play on the night of the bachelorette party, letting the audience absorb the back story from the characters.
Thankfully, the production picks up speed from there, with director Chuck Erven keeping the action moving at a fast clip. The three women soon bump into the two men who will complicate their evening: Frank (Jono Cota), a sorta suave dude still smarting over a failed relationship; and Eddie (Ben McNamara), a love-starved dentist.
Within minutes of their meeting, Marnie is kissing Frank, which raises the ire of her friends and sets in course a chain of events whose tones range from slapstick to moodily contemplative.
The storyline of bride-to-be getting cold feet — thus upsetting elaborate wedding plans — is a familiar trope in popular culture, and while Bock spins a relatively engaging variety of the tale, it still seems a little trite. More engaging is a plot thread involving Eddie and Bob (Giovanni Navarro), who trade late-night philosophical musings about the nature of love — and dance around their mutual attraction to each other.
Though I’m lukewarm on much of the play, two actors stand out for me: Manders, radiant on stage, who finds a lot of texture in her character; and Navarro, whose understated performance is gently charismatic.
The production design, too, is stellar, with Christopher Boltz’s clever simple narrow platform set — which offers a surprise or two of its own — adding a jolt to the storyline. When you first walk into the theater, two “bouncers” check your ticket, then let you past a red-velvet rope into a darkened “club scene” complete with DJ (Jordan Zalaha, who introduces the play.) Consider it a little slice of Manhattan in Fresno.