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Williamston Theatre's light comedy settles on harder truths

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REVIEW

For a light comedy, “New Releases” — the latest Joseph Zettelmaier penned production — is surprisingly depressing. Given the subject matter, the show could be called “Life Transitions,” but with the show set in a video rental store, “New Releases” is the punier title. Either way, “New Releases” is a Williamston-tailored production that mostly succeeds on the strength of the actors.

Jen (Jamie Lien), a 21-year-old film student and video store clerk, is ready to close early for Halloween. When Carol (Sandra Birch) barges in and demands to rent an obscure film without an account for $100 and “no questions asked,” Jen’s imagination is sparked. But Carol comes back and reveals herself to Jen, one visit, movie rental and question at a time. Along with store owner Bob (Scott Norman), Jen learns that the truth is not like the movies.

Jen is your “typical young person” as defined by baby boomers with all the stereotypical tropes that description implies. Lien has the unenviable task of turning this caricature into a relatable person. Jen dresses as “sexy pizza” for Halloween to impress a boyfriend, she doesn’t know what her “story is” and considers her entire life up to this point as uneventful and dull.

Lien makes you believe that Jen has a backstory and is more than just an insecure, sarcastic college student.

Similarly, Birch turns Carol into a warm, empathetic human even as she lectures Jen about the hardness of life and the power of nostalgia. It helps that Birch is the Meryl Streep of Michigan, if I haven’t said it already. That means that Birch sells every line and moment that she has with a sincere and detailed commitment to the character, even when the script falters. On page, Carol delivers cliché platitudes to Jen. Onstage, Birch and Lien quarrel and connect like a mother and daughter.

For his part, Norman provides some comic relief and sage advice to Jen as Bob. Bob asks her annoying questions such as “why did I hire you?” when disappointed in her pop-culture knowledge or lack or work ethic, but he means well.

Under Paige Conway in her directorial debut at Williamston, the 90-minute show moves relatively smoothly, with one especially fun scene where time compresses days into seconds, allowing Jen to ask Carol seemingly rapid-fire questions. Other times, the show struggles to maintain its pace.

As usual, the Williamston’s technical elements do not disappoint. Scenic design by Bartley H. Bauer and properties designer Michelle Raymond recreated a photo-realistic replica of a small-town video rental store complete with light blue shelves, a sticky looking floor and crinkled movie posters from past and present. Clips of classic movies like the original “Night of the Living Dead,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “His Girl Friday” and “High Noon” play on the store TV above the actors. Shannon Schweitzer’s subtle lighting design keeps time passing while Quintessa Gallinat as the sound designer put together a perfect sounding trailer of the obscure, grindhouse era, vampire porno “Maria at Midnight” that Carol first rents for $100.

Without revealing too much, “New Releases” settles on the disappointing thesis that a made-up mystery is more interesting than the honest truth. At one point, Carol tells Jen, “Life doesn’t get any easier as you go along.” For a comedy, that seems pretty bleak. But for Williamston’s opening night audience, that message along with the sentimental ending was met with nods and sniffles.

“New Releases”

Williamston Theatre

May 9 – June 9

$28 - $33

Student: $10

122 S Putnam St., Williamston

(517) 655-7469

williamstontheatre.org/new-releases

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