Parallel Lives

[This review ran in the Denver Post on May 26, 2005.]

In the wake of this week's announcement that John Ashton has sold operational control of the Avenue Theater back to founder Robert Wells, the company opened Parallel Lives, which ran in that theatre as an independent production in 1998.

Photo of Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton as Supreme Beings
Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton
as Supreme Beings
Photo: Avenue Theater
Written by Mo Gaffney (That 70's Show) and Kathy Najimy (Sister Act), the show is a series of comedic sketches loosely bound by the appearance of two female supreme beings who kibitz over the ground rules for the human race and, later, revisit the planet to see how their premises are shaking out.

To open this "new chapter in the Avenue's history," as Wells put it on opening night, he has cast two local pros, the versatile comedienne Beth Flynn and the zany improv veteran Pam Clifton to handle the heavenly duties and broad range of supporting characterizations called for in the script.

As the two goddesses initially gaze down on Earth, they struggle with whether the white race will be jealous of all the other beautiful people of color, and how to balance the gift of birth given to females. They decide to keep an eye on the whites, make birth especially painful, and give men "as much ego as possible." Talk about a set up!

Photo of Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton
(Top to Bottom)
Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton
Photo: Avenue Theater
As it turns out, some of the skits are hilarious, some amusing, and some flat with age, but in all cases the writers make their points and Flynn and Clifton, who naturally complement one another, prove inventive and engaging.

After the creation of the world, we visit college-aged Kris and Jeff who, after watching Mork and Mindy on their first date, decide to catch a bite at a "queer Denny's." Though it is an eye-opening experience for Kris, and while she is otherwise a conventional and deferential product of her times, she instinctively rushes to the defense of gay customer who has been slighted by the waitress.

Photo of Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton
(L to R) Beth Flynn and Pam Clifton
Photo: Avenue Theater
Though didactic in tone, the exchange sets up a couple of other sketches—Flynn's affectionate portrayal of a Jewish matron who discovers that her favorite nephew is gay, and a mocking take on two radical feminists—that are charming for the innocence they reveal about the nature gay rights as it was perceived twenty years ago, when Gaffney and Najimy were first performing this piece in San Francisco.

This is not to say that such commentary isn't instructive for the large segment of the population still in the thrall of fundamentalist homophobia, though one wonders how many of them actually attend straight theatre.

Photo of Pam Clifton and Beth Flynn
(L to R) Pam Clifton and Beth Flynn
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Equally quaint, after years of exposure to Catholic guilt in Nunsense and its host of knock-offs, is the sketch involving a pair of parochial schoolgirls caught between the ceaseless indoctrination of the Church and their own instinctive curiosity. The material is freshened by Flynn's and Clifton's endearing portraits, which seamlessly morph from prepubescent to adolescence to adulthood, as the girls grow out of their childhood solipsism.

Contemporary notes are struck with a look at television advertising's assault on personal privacy, where a widowed Russian peasant woman does an endorsement for feminine hygiene, followed by a topsy-turvy world in which two male ballplayers discuss their "monthlies."

Finally, there's Clifton's virtuoso rendition of a morning wake-up, shower, toilette, and dressing routine choreographed to the 4th movement of Bizet's Symphony in C.

The Avenue has always grounded itself in a mix of improv and topical comedy, and Wells and his cast do this as well as ever. But, in recent years, the company has found a good measure of critical success with serious drama and sophisticated comedies. While Parallel Lives and the recent stop-gap Murder Most Fowl play to the company's loyal clientele, it will take a multi-faceted approach to meet financial obligations at its new space. Hopefully this includes some new material.

The Avenue Theatre's production of Parallel Lives runs through June 26th. 303-534-4440.

Bob Bows


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