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Review

Playwright fails his own story in 'On a First Name Basis' at Desiderio’s

There was a server at my favorite restaurant I used to chat with. A simple back-and-forth about our day, sometimes just a friendly head nod. The way real, hardworking people connect with each other, even nonverbally, to show we’re not alone. Her name is Claire.

Once when things were slow Claire sat and we had a full conversation. She told me about her dream of opening a shop; I told her about my work. We found context for each other outside of a business transaction.

Claire came to mind as I watched Norm Foster’s “On a First Name Basis,” now at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre. Maybe it was their kind service and delicious food that reminded me of her. A trip to Desiderio’s, in a back room at Bobby J’s in Cheektowaga, always dependable and comforting – first-rate hospitality and hot, homemade and abundant food.

My eggplant parmigiana ($54, including ticket) – crisp, nutty cutlets, sweet tomato gravy, homemade ricotta – was simple and direct. An honorable dish. In less careful hands it could have been obscene, dripping with gratuitous mozzarella, laden with sauce. It could have ruined a simple, well-conceived concept — like Foster’s play does.

Foster has good intentions in telling a story about two people sitting down to have a conversation. Lots of plays have done this well. In this case, it’s a story of two people – celebrated author David (played by Russ Papia) and his housekeeper Lucy (Eileen Dugan) – finally connecting after too many years on each other’s periphery. You could argue that it accomplishes its goal, though I’m not convinced it gets there fairly.

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By design, David is awash in arrogance, condescension and selfishness. We’re meant to find him repulsive, yet his actions insist that we oblige him. I don’t think Dugan’s strong-willed Lucy would ever oblige this man’s whims, not for a second. Certainly not for the 28 years she has worked for him.

Things get awkward when he insists that Lucy tell him all about her romantic relationships, living arrangements and personal finances – a supposed heart-to-heart. She’s on the clock and says she doesn’t want to have this conversation at the risk of jeopardizing her employment. He doesn’t hear that because he’s not actually listening to her.

The play unfolds from there, taking a handful of preposterous detours along the way. One joke that keeps coming up is the one he makes about her salary, which he uses to diminish her value and worth – in the name of intellectual discourse. David (and Foster) barely consider Lucy’s desires to share or not, or at least on her terms. It’s invasive and crass.

Papia is charming enough but doesn’t give David the room to exude the real pain that’s molded his personality this way. Dugan is no pushover, and neither, I believe, is Lucy. But I don’t buy that her Lucy would have ever stomached working for a man who just now decides to care about her personal life, even anecdotally. Lucy might be more interesting if she seemed more nervous at the prospect of being so casual with her boss.

This is Foster's mess, though, and also the theater’s choice to produce it. To be fair, it might not smack you over the head with offensiveness; it’s charming in an awkward way. But it might totally rub you the wrong way, too. It’s so clearly written by and about a man, without thought for the woman’s perspective or boundaries. It's a lighthearted romp about a man desperate to be excused for his own self-guilt for having forgotten the name of his housekeeper of 28 years.

Her name is Lucy. She works hard. She has a life outside your mansion. She’s worth every penny you pay her.

• • •

"On a First Name Basis"

1.5 stars (out of four)

Presented through March 22 by Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, located inside Bobby J’s, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga. Performances are at 6 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $50 to $60, including meal and ticket (box office, 395-32077, mybobbyjs.com).

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