Dallas — It has been several weeks since I saw Matt Lyle’s latest play, Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals at Theatre Three in the downstairs Theatre Too! space, and while it’s not particularly provocative, it provides something sorely needed: Laughter. Lots of it.
As he’s proven time and time again, Lyle has impeccable timing with a punchline or comic situation. The man behind such works as The Boxer and Barbecue Apocalypse knows how to make audiences laugh.
I’ve found myself chuckling at inappropriate times and sometimes in public places at one line said by Chad Cline as Clark. It deals with a recipe for a food item that could only be concocted by a Southerner, and it’s not one of the cliché go-to dishes that constantly pop up in those plays filled with Southern stereotypes (say, crushed potato chips on a casserole). Clark’s reaction was exactly what I kept thinking even as there was urgent action happening with the other characters.
Food is not what Cedar Springs is about, but it plays a role because it’s one of the major indicators of our differences and what unites us. We all eat and we have different tastes—but luckily our preferences overlap more often than not.
Clark, who is the husband of Marcus (Wilbur Penn), a couple living in Dallas’ “gayborhood” of Oak Lawn, has fabulous taste—in food, style and what comes out of his mouth. As the play opens, they’re entertaining new condo neighbors Rhonda (Charlotte Akin) and Donald (John S. Davies), who have moved to the city from an East Texas house. Later, we’ll meet their teenage son Ronnie (Jaxon Beeson), and Marcus and Clark’s college-age and frighteningly smart daughter Sophia (Alle Mims).
The plays opens with Donald asking Marcus questions that straight people often inquire of the first gay people with whom have a real conversation. Cue the well-timed entrance of Clark. As we get to know both couples, and they learn about each other, Cedar Springs is a mini-roller coaster ride of how people of different backgrounds and experiences—even long-married people—say the wrong things to each other.
In Lyle’s script and Jeffrey Schmidt’s snappy direction, none of it feels forced or overly clever for the sake of landing a joke. The fact the Marcus is black adds another layer of how Rhonda and Donald interact with their interracial, gay neighbors. It’s like a reversed, fun-house version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
There are sprinkles of quickly resolved conflicts throughout their conversation, but the action escalates when Sophia arrives home from school early and learns that the new neighbors have a 16-year-old son next door. She investigates, and the wackiness moves to the hetero couples’ apartment. David Walsh’s scenic design gives us mirroring living areas with vastly different interior designs; Clark and Marcus’ is modern with clean lines, while Donald and Rhonda’s is budget Laura Ashley with plastic-covered furniture. Ryan D. Schaap’s costumes nicely define the characters and environment.
The performances don’t get ahead of the punchlines, which is difficult when the jokes fly this quickly. Penn gives an especially affecting turn. And in case you’re wondering (as I was) after seeing the play’s subtitle and a photo of the bearded Cline as Clark, “big scary animals” does not refer to the kind of bears often spotted in the gayborhood.
Set when American life was much less complicated—2015—Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals sets its sights on the idea that we don’t know how to talk about our differences, tackling it with intelligence and humor. Lyle makes his point that words do matter and we should pay more attention to them; but he also effectively satirizes how overly sensitive we can be.
Good food for thought, no matter if it's mousse or pudding.