In 1999, Freeport's Sean Michael O'Donnell and Todd Collar started a community theater quite a stretch distant from Pittsburgh's Cultural District. In Natrona. And, for five years, The Olde Bank Theatre regularly attracted audiences from nearby Allegheny River towns.
The enterprising pair is again near the river, slightly closer to Downtown's professional offerings. They've just inaugurated The New Olde Bank Theatre in Verona, a small, second-floor playing space once a Knights of Columbus meeting hall. Based on completely filled seats Saturday night, it looks as if they've found a new and interested community.
The debut offering is Return to the Moral Abyss, 95 minutes' worth of five comedy sketches by O'Donnell (an occasional CP contributor), most of them justifiably brief.
Some have inventive comic premises and quite funny lines; others seem obvious and overdone. Seventeen performers, with varying degrees of skill, work earnestly to entertain in various small roles. Among them, Alex Love, Lori Barrage and Vincent Chelkowski seem the most polished, able to avoid playing as broadly as many other cast members.
Two pieces work well. In one, "The Accidental Intentional Death of Miss Connie Jones," a would-be suicide telephones a help hot-line where she gets off-the-wall advice while being measured for a garment. The other is "Three Women in a Restaurant Waiting," where ladies of varying ages compare experiences about their men, who haven't showed up yet. Neither has the waiter.
O'Donnell has come up with clever ways to link the plays. So, after Connie contemplates ending her life, he sends up Chekhov's Three Sisters despairingly pondering death. Then three other women find a kind of sisterhood, after which two people suffer a first date in a similar restaurant.
O'Donnell relies heavily on bits about same-gender sexual re-alignments, and on having actors drop out of character to comment on theatrical effects. As director, he also provides lots of action and props, especially in the over-long and amateurish final piece, "Disaster! (The Play!)," which includes more stops, starts and staggers than you'll find on a rusty roller-coaster.
Interestingly, few cast members have more than one role among the 20 characters, meaning O'Donnell and Collar found plenty of people interested in appearing only briefly in such an off-beat location. And the producers also managed to find an audience -- which, based on Saturday night's full house, means ticket-buyers having a good time.
Return to the Moral Abyss continues through Sun., June 29. The New Olde Bank Theatre, 722 Allegheny River Blvd., Verona. 412-251-7904 or www.newobt.com