Wednesday, February 19, 2014

'Ben & Rita': Strong Effort With a New Play at MMT

The purpose of the Winter Festival of New Works at Mill Mountain Theatre is to give aspiring writers a platform for the development of their plays. And it's a dandy of an opportunity for these promising artists.

The final piece of this year's puzzle at MMT's Waldron Stage is Wendy-Marie Martin's "Ben & Rita," a comedy with rough edges, an ending that needs some oomph and a lot of promise. Martin will graduate with an MFA in playwriting from the Hollins Playwright's Lab this year and she has already built a nice resume.

"Ben & Rita" tells the story of a couple of neighbors who are opposites in every way, but who are thrown toward each other by a series of odd circumstances and the result is quite a few laughs. Ben is the shy sci-fi writer, Rita the late-night carousing grandmother with an estranged daughter and a granddaughter she doesn't even know about. The daughter and granddaughter come back into her life because of the youngester's "visions" and we're off on a good tale.

Martin's play is fortunate here because it has a strong cast, led by veteran improvisational actors Ross Laguzza, Amy Trowell and Kristin Banks and spectacular 15-year-old newcomer Gwyneth Strope, daughter of Roanoke theater veterans Mike and Amanda Strope Mansfield. Laguzza's agorophobic sci-fi writer and Trowell's trashy granny are balanced by the sensible Banks character and we get a workable plot that needs some development, but is strong already.

The play is in development this week and it's worth a look. It's $10 at the Waldron Stage through Sunday with matinees both Saturday and Sunday.

The whole crew gets extra kudos for this production because of some major interruptions by snow, which kept them from doing a full run-through until Tuesday night, the night the play was initially scheduled to debut. Fine effort from everybody involved.

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