StageSceneLA: AMERICAN WEE-PIE is “absolutely scrumptious”

Cupcakes offer a down-on-his-luck textbook editor a new lease on life in Lisa Dillman’s magical, whimsical American Wee-Pie, now getting its Los Angeles Premiere in one of my favorite Theatre 40 productions ever.

It may not be suicidal instincts but mere shellshock from a pair of recent deaths that get “Zed” Zedlicki (Caleb Slavens) nearly run over before being rescued just in the nick of time by cupcake shop owner Linz (Deidra Edwards). Whatever the reason, if ever there were someone in need of saving, it’s native Midwesterner Zed, returned home from Chicago to small-town Gardensend for his mother’s funeral.

Despite almost instant recognition by former high school classmate Linz, Zed has no recollection whatsoever of the perky baker’s wife, who refuses to take no for an answer to her invitation that Zed drop by Le Petit Gateau for a taste of one of the gourmet cupcakes confectioned by her très Français husband Pableu (Christopher Franciosa).

In the meantime, there are Mom’s affairs to be put in order with the help of older sister Pam (Elizabeth Lande), who like her brother left the homestead years back for a job not any more fulfilling than Zed’s.

Speaking of which … despite having survived the recession-provoked downsizing that got his middle-aged, overweight, not terribly competent coworker Phil laid off, it doesn’t help Zed’s current mental state that on his way out of the building, paltry possessions in hand, Phil keeled over and dropped dead, leaving Zed with not one but two deaths to process.

It doesn’t help either that the ghost of bike-riding, potty-mouthed Phil (James Schendel) has set about haunting the man whose youth and competence cost the considerably less healthy and capable man his job.

Fortunately, a visit to Pableu and Linz’s cupcake shop proves precisely what the doctor ordered, Zed’s first bite into one of the French baker’s heavenly cupcakes giving the grieving young man a taste of the happiness missing from his life for who knows how long.

Not only that, but wonder of wonders, Zed’s palate turns out to be as discerning as palates get, capable of distinguishing even the most subtle ingredients in Pableu’s petits gateaux (Norwegian rutabagas, Sri Lankan ganache, to name just two), prompting an offer of small-town employment that promises Zed a healing change from big-city office drudgery.

What happens next will not be revealed here, nor will I tell you what a “wee-pie” is. Suffice it to say that this reviewer found himself captivated by playwright Dillman’s quirky yet appealing characters and invested in their collective search for happiness in a dog-eat-dog world.

These characters also include Pete (Steve Keyes), a “burial property broker” who might just prove as much a lifesaver to Pam as Linz and Pableu are to her brother, and folksy postman Malcolm (Frederick Dawson), first to realize from several days’ accumulated mail that something bad must have befallen one of his route regulars.

Under Stewart J. Zully’s astute direction, a splendid Theatre 40 cast keep Dillman’s delightful cast of characters all on the same charmingly eccentric yet utterly real page.

Franciosa and Edwards make for a perfectly delectable Jack and Mrs. Sprat, the former with a French accent so thick you could cut it with one of Pableu’s cupcake knives (and with good reason), the latter simply luminous as the best thing ever to happen to Zed (and one of the best to happen to Theatre 40).

Lande’s acerbic yet loving Pam, Dawson’s charmingly down-to-earth Malcolm, Keyes’ deliciously droll Pete, and Schendel’s outrageously foul-mouthed Phil could not be better either.

Best of all is a revelatory Slavens, who vanishes inside Zed’s down-and-out drabness to reveal the sweet, big-hearted optimist lurking just under the surface.

(As a side note, American Wee-Pie’s Chicago World Premiere featured two fewer cast members, a single actor playing Malcolm, Pete, and Phil. The currently endangered Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan allows for a cast of seven, six of them members of Actors’ Equity, and the production is all the richer for its size.)

With its idiosyncratic cast of characters and screenplay-like construction, American Wee-Pie feels like a Sundance indie, one whose frequent scene changes might prove a challenge on a smaller stage than Theatre 40’s. Fortunately, a wide playing area allows scenic designer Jeff G. Rack to divide the stage into sections (the bright pink centerstage cupcake shop is a tasty visual treat) and scene changes are accomplished almost as swiftly as movie cuts.

Michèle Young’s costumes are some of her contemporary best, and both set and costumes are artfully lit by lighting designer Ric Zimmerman.

Still, if ever sound was a production design’s star element, it is Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design for American Wee-Pie, a brilliantly complex mix of music, effects, and ambient sounds, never more spectacular than in a scene which has Zed hearing a dozen or so elements in “traffic noise” with an ear every bit as perceptive as are his taste buds.

Jennifer Laks is assistant director. Don Solosan is stage manager.

Producer (and Theatre 40 artistic director) David Hunt Stafford is to be saluted for challenging his post-retirement age subscriber base with something out of the ordinary in American Wee-Pie, and for presenting Dillman’s play as is, occasional R-rated language and all.

Still, intermittent vulgarity aside, there’s nothing evenly remotely offensive about Zed’s journey towards rebirth. Quite the contrary, rarely has a play proven more magical (and inspirational) than the absolutely scrumptious American Wee-Pie.