The New Plays Festival heated up this weekend with the comedy and quick wit of “The Mumbling Waitress” and “Scared Money,” in which tempers rose and even the props played an active role.
Senior Hali Engelman’s 15-minute one-act, “The Mumbling Waitress,” kicked things off with a rowdy start.
Inspired by an experience in a diner somewhere between Knox and St. Louis, the play focuses on two buddies sitting at a table, deprecating a co-worker and fantasizing about his wife. Their conversation, however, is punctuated by the mumbling of the waitress, who reluctantly pours their coffee. Noticing her curious brand of customer service, the two are utterly baffled.
“There was this waitress, and she started mumbling really quietly about how we didn’t need coffee — at the same time pouring us coffee,” Engelman said of the play’s inspiration.
The script itself was “pretty free of stage direction,” according to Engelman, which left post-baccalaureate director Isaac Miller ’12 ample room for action.
Though based on a sedentary conversation, the story does not stay put. Coffee is spilled, toast is thrown and junior Jon Hewelt, bedecked in a rain poncho and piano key tie, flees from senior Jonathan Plotnick’s character, his makeshift weapon raised overhead in hot pursuit.
After a brief intermission, the shocks and laughter were kept coming with Visiting Instructor in Theatre and Writer-in-Residence Sherwood Kiraly’s “Scared Money.”
Set in the library of a California college, the characters search for a winning horse race ticket over the course of an evening, attempting to beat questionable motives, severed loyalties, distrust and the clock before the library closes.
The inspiration for the play’s climax struck Kiraly two years ago in California, while he was out for a walk. It was a twist that he did not think anyone had done before, the blocking of which he demonstrated on the kitchen counter with avocados and bananas to his wife.
“I was also having a debate with myself about writing. … There’s a key question that one of the characters brings up in the play when she says ‘shouldn’t being a good writer make you a better person?’” Kiraly said.
Indeed, the behavior of the main character, Walter, a visiting professor and novelist played by Miller, is questionable, to put it lightly. Miller described playing Walter as “the hammiest role I’ve ever done. … I could be as big a scumbag as I wanted to be.”
Involved in an affair with a graduate student (freshman Nicole Acton), and not even fully separated from his wife, V (sophomore Alexia Vasilopoulos), Walter uses her money to go gambling at the racetrack — more for the “idea of it” than anything else — with colleague Curtis (freshman Morgan Jellison). There, he takes advice from both Curtis and the colorful Sonny (junior Neil Phelps).
To everyone’s surprise, Walter wins big, causing Sonny and his girlfriend (sophomore Emily Passarelli) to track him down. Hiding the winning ticket in a book, he attempts to flee the scene, gets hit crossing the street and spends most of the night in the hospital while the others scour the library, rifling through books and trying to put themselves in Walter’s shoes.
According to Kiraly, the play’s title originated from a gambling expression: “Scared money never wins. Poker players say it, horse players say it. What it means is, if you really need the money, if you have to win, you won’t.”
Given that the job of the playwright is not to answer, but rather to present the question properly, “Scared Money” offers no definitive final word on the connection between being a good person and a good writer. Instead, “it kind of covers the question,” Kiraly said. This, and the motives of the mumbling waitress in Engleman’s one-act, who wanders off into the sunset with one of the men, are then left for the audience to turn over.
Speaking to the art and difficulty of crafting a good play, Kiraly explained that it must carry the audience all the way through.
“It doesn’t let you go — ever. And then, it comes to an ending, which is supposed to be both a surprise, and somehow inevitable. … You have to surprise [your audience], but you have to surprise them truthfully,” he said.