Story: Times are tough for the St. Francis Parish. Ironically, an ‘act of God’ has put the church in the Catholic archdiocese in dire financial straits. So, the ladies of the St. Francis Knitting Ministry decide that the best way to raise funds is to hold a trivia night while they rob a local credit union.
Maxine spearheads the effort, assisted by the quarreling Crosses, namely mom Allison and daughter Patricia, and the timid Betsy White. Their plans are made more challenging when the parish pastor comes down with a painful case of shingles and is replaced at the last minute by his unknowing assistant, Father Calvin.
Unfortunately, Father Calvin is the object of Patricia’s unrequited love, which further strains her relationship with Allison beyond the fact that she has chosen to attend community college instead of a university. Betsy is too meek to object when people call her ‘Betty White’ instead of Betsy, focusing her frustrations on trying to get pregnant with her husband. And Maxine wants to use ferrets instead of guns for the heist to create diversion. Who will win this trivia night?
Highlights: OnSite Theatre specializes in plays that are produced to mesh with the venue in which they are performed. For the world premiere of playwright Dan Rubin’s two-act work, The Trivia Job, the location is the hall at Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis. Since churches, schools and community centers are popular locales for trivia fund-raising events, the setting is serendipitous.
While The Trivia Job has substantial problems, the atmosphere is festive, the performances are endearing and there are even three rounds of actual trivia questions for the true aficionados of worthless information. In St. Louis, that’s a sizable group, indeed.
Other Info: Rubin, whose previous works include the ingenious Huckleberry Hostel that was performed so well by OnSite a few years back, has a clever idea with this particular tale, but the execution is erratic, both by the playwright and the company. The show is at its best when Rubin sticks to comedy, but his forays into serious drama just don’t work. Conversely, they tend to bring down the general mood.
Each of the five cast members has his or her moment to take the microphone and ramble on about personal travails. While this provides some back-story for the characters, it doesn’t mesh well with the surroundings and serves instead to halt any comic momentum.
Another problem is the nature of trivia nights themselves, which generally border on organized chaos. Tables of eight (or 10) participants at a typical trivia gathering are boisterous and out for an evening of fun, even while competing for the bragging rights of being the ‘smartest’ table in the house. So, Rubin’s choice for a play has built-in problems for the attention-challenged, including certain reviewers (ahem).
Perhaps that is why opening night had its share of fumbled lines and uneven pacing that sometimes was simply sluggish. On the plus side, director Annamaria Pileggi manages to oversee not only her cast but also the audience, interspersing their participatory behavior with the characters, who amble in and out of the action as part of the ladies’ plot to commit robbery.
Donna Weinsting is amusing as the no-nonsense Maxine, who drops in a (real) plug for the hosting church and who calmly mentions that ferrets “have a higher brain-to-body ratio than dogs.” She carefully selects the evening’s music, too, noting that American Pie is eight and a half minutes long, a crucial interlude for their illegal endeavor. Weinsting’s expressions say as much as her dialogue with humorous results.
Michelle Hand inhabits the world of the mousy Betsy, even making her serious soliloquy affecting. She and her colleagues are quite entertaining at their ‘table,’ being careful to act ‘normal’ while they go about their nefarious business.
Ann Marie Mohr and Julia Zasso are convincing as the bickering mother and daughter, respectively, raising petulance to an art form. There’s also a running sight gag involving Allison’s dealings with the ferrets, while Zasso acerbically delivers dialogue pointedly directed at Father Calvin.
Ben Nordstrom brings a wide-eyed comic touch to Father Calvin, who has his own mysteries which he obliquely references, including a penchant for alcohol. Nordstrom’s quite funny as he ad libs with the audience tables, too, while keeping up the illusions of the show.
Rubin has dipped into a wellspring that will resonate with the scores of locals who regularly attend trivia nights as social gatherings and entertainment. Bring your own snacks, purchase beverages at the bar and focus on the fractured good times with the St. Francis Knitting Ministry.
Play: The Trivia Job
Company: OnSite Theatre
Venue: Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, 1919 South Broadway
Dates: November 1, 2, 8, 9
Tickets: $25; contact OnSiteTheatre.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Opal Andrews