Review: 'Meanwhile ...'

By Jim Rutter

Too many writers bank on early success and never expand their literary boundaries. Madi Distefano sprang onto the nascent Philadelphia theater scene in the mid-1990s and for a dozen years slashed her pen across the page in epic, edgy scripts about burnt-out youths chasing dreams of punk superstardom.

Fifteen years later, she’s set a different task. After staging small-cast, quick-costume-change shows like Greater Tuna and The Mystery of Irma Vep, Distefano has penned a quick-changer of her own in Meanwhile ..., now in its world premiere with Brat Productions.

Meanwhile ... employs this genre’s stock tricks in a spoof of Mickey Spillane private investigator stories. The usual suspects appear: P.I. John Sharp, buxom blonde Sugar, and a litany of caricatures (club owners, gangsters, gun molls) from post-Prohibition Atlantic City. The convoluted story is only a vehicle for the humor, which first inspires laughter but then abuses one’s tolerance for repetition. Every use of the word box, drawers, or dick (that’s detective, mind you) holds up a sign that screams double entendre!.

Distefano leavens the rampant suggestiveness with verbal gimmicks from every movie starring Leslie Nielsen. Characters ramble on in self-referential jokes: “I’m redundant. I repeat myself,” "I say the same thing over and over"; Sharp notes that “If I did it my way, I’d be Frank.” (Seriously.)

Although Bradley Helm’s versatile set features four doors and two entrances, Lee Etzold’s direction doesn’t move this quick-change show along very quickly. Too many scenes feature only two of the 12 characters, providing no opportunity for the lightning costume/wig changes that make the genre a smash. Otherwise, Mary McCool and Sarah Doherty split the parts and play each with fabulous dexterity. McCool varies hers down to gait and posture; Doherty blasts out an original big-band number with a set of blaring, beautiful pipes.

At its best, Distefano’s script both mocks the genre and gets us to laugh with, instead of at, the very thing she mocks. McCool skillfully winks through the narration and addresses the audience in indulgent asides. Props and a few partially costumed stagehands let the audience chuckle at the backstage machinations.
Such devices give Meanwhile … a charm that will no doubt delight fans of quick-change or detective genres. It’s an ambitious attempt at artistic invention that shows new roads often have rocky beginnings.

Meanwhile ... Presented by Brat Productions at Ruba Club, 416 Green St., through Nov. 19. Tickets: $15-$25. Information: 267-586-9093 or