With apologies to director Kendra Malm, I'm obliged to venture into spoiler country to review her latest effort at Olympia Little Theatre, Goodbye Charlie. The curtain rises on a room full of actors waiting for something to happen, and for most of Scene 1, we're right there with ‘em. Charlie Sorel, an unscrupulous lothario in early ‘60s Malibu, passed away in flagrante delicto. The only person who seems upset by Charlie's demise is George, his less worldly friend, played here by Rick Pearlstein. This is Pearlstein's first lead, and while I found his anachronistic Ned Flanders mustache distracting throughout, he's earned it. His performance is both sympathetic and plausible, especially given what comes next.
It seems Heaven has a sense of humor, so not only does Charlie come back from the dead, he comes back as a woman. That woman, played blondely and bustily by Michaela Hickey, is less perturbed by this than one might expect. In fact, she seems downright enthusiastic about re-entering the dating scene as an Estrogen-American.
I think Malm's set design would've worked better in reverse, with its too-high bar upstage and bedroom downstage, but all the same it's refreshing to see an OLT show blocked along its diagonals. Her decision to set the show in period was crucial; as on Mad Men, we're invited to observe the evolution and perceptions of gender identity over recent generations. Charlie 2.0 finds herself with limited career opportunities, and even George finds her cigar habit suddenly disgusting.
I think if you go into this show anticipating a situation comedy you'll be mostly disappointed. It has jokes all right, but not as often or juicy as you'd expect. What Goodbye Charlie is, it turns out, is a romance, in the supernatural vein of Prelude to a Kiss, and from that perspective it's worth your time. I found it interesting that Hickey plays a man in the body of a young woman largely by playing a modern young woman. Most men wouldn't sit cross-legged on a couch, to be sure, but Hickey does convey a credible male demeanor.
I was especially impressed by Allison Zoe Schneider, the Evergreen Shakespearean who plays Charlie's patrician ex-wife, Rusty. Is her mid-Atlantic movie accent, an ostensible homage to Katharine Hepburn, out of period context for this show? The niggling critic in me says yes, but the entertained audience member says no. It's my first time seeing her anywhere, and she's both striking and gifted and I'm sure we'll be seeing her often down the road.
I beat up on Malm's first directorial effort two seasons ago like it was an effigy of Hitler. It deserved that. I was kinder to her second effort; it deserved kinder treatment. This show is much better still. At this rate, she'll be Elia Kazan by 2020.
[Olympia Little Theatre, Distracted, Thurs. - Sat. 7:55 p.m., Sun. 1:55 p.m. through Oct. 7, $10-$14, 1725 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, 360.786.9484]