"The Final Scene" by Gene Abravaya at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

Photos by Eric Chazankin:
Left photo, from left – Jennifer Weil, Eric Thompson, Paul Huberty
Right photo - Tice Allison

“The Final Scene”
An original play by Gene Abravaya
Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theater, Santa Rosa CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

The Bubble Machine At Full Blast

There’s a truism among writers: your very best work is about what you know from life. This, the second play by Santa Rosa playwright Gene Abravaya, proves there’s truth in that old saying. “The Final Scene” is a lively, surprise-filled comic romp with some very uniquely creative twists. It’s based on what Abravaya saw and heard during his four years working on the set of one of the most famous soap operas of all time, “As the World Turns”.

Jennifer Weil delivers a finely tuned, razor-sharp performance as fading actress and soap star Gretchen Manning. We learn that for 18 years, Gretchen has played Rosemary, the central character of “The Promising Dawn”, a long-running but tired soap opera. Poor Rosemary is about to be “killed off” the show, and Gretchen just doesn’t want to say goodbye. Her steely exterior shields a tender heart, and she has made close and caring friendships with the crew. She has made enemies as well.

“The Final Scene”, in its world premiere at Sixth Street, takes the form of a show-within-a-show, offering us a pleasurable glimpse into the mechanics of daytime drama in the 1980s. Through the eyes of some PBS documentarians who are there to film Gretchen’s last day, we also discover deeply personal and touching insight into the characters as they are being interviewed.

Gretchen’s leading man Jeremy Slade is played with sleazy determination by Paul Huberty, who also displays his talent for slapstick. There are standout characterizations; Freddie Lambert is Gretchen’s gritty but lovable personal assistant Richie, and the take-charge studio floor manager Shelly is played with comic authority by Kendall Carroll.

The unseen (but heard) documentary interviewer is voiced by Eric Thompson, who also makes a joltingly hilarious second act appearance as Jeremy Slade’s agent Milton Medthorne. In a really funny plot device, another offstage and unseen character, the TV show’s sound director Manny, inserts himself wordlessly into the story at just the right moments with sarcastic commentary in the form of song snippets and sound effects.

Peter Downey, as beleaguered “Promising Dawn” executive producer Joseph Whitmore, is a low-key but effective craftsman in developing his character. Rebekah Patti as his glossy would-be successor Allison delivers an uneven performance, although she does show promise. Studio cameramen Rocky and Boseman, played by Matthew T Witthaus and Tice Allison, and Julia Hoff in three small roles, offer droll and pleasing support.

There are some good moments, offset by some mediocre ones. Director Tim Kniffin makes good use of environmental theater techniques. All aspects of the stage area, auditorium, lighting and sound effects combine to transform the GK Hardt Theater into a TV sound stage. At times the blocking and pacing seem a bit off, possibly due to opening-night jitters. Set design is by Paul Gilger, who once again deserves kudos for providing the furniture, fixtures and equipment that brings us right into the show. Sound and light board operator Samantha Keppel deserves special praise as well.

“The Final Scene” fully justifies the sense of eager anticipation that always surrounds world premieres. It’s got all the ingredients of a great time wrapped up in a jazzy new package: well-executed comedy and drama, tenderness, surprises and a little lowbrow entertainment to boot. Who could ask for anything more?

When: March 4 to March 27, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
8 p.m. Thursday, March 24
2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com