THEATER REVIEW | Gadfly Theatre’s “Girl Gumshoe and Detective Dad”: The case of the empty nester

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I didn’t think this would happen again so soon (on the heels of Freshwater Theatre’s recent production of the new play The Man In Her Dreams), but with Gadfly Theatre’s production of Eli Effinger-Weintraub’s new comedy Girl Gumshoe and Detective Dad, I may have run across another piece of theater for which I’m too well acquainted with the subject matter and the artists to be entirely objective. But I’ll give it a go.

“You’ve confused yourself with Batman. Again.”

I’m a big fan of Gadfly Theatre’s mission to queer things up on the local theater scene, and their devotion to supporting new work, and local writers in particular. (They even produced a short play of mine earlier this year in their sci fi festival.) I’m also a big fan of Eli’s writing because it’s always smart and challenging as well as funny. She’s developed a number of her scripts, including Girl Gumshoe, through a writing group of which I’m a part. Eli is also sharp and tireless in the service of making other people’s scripts better. Her dramaturgical insights in evaluating other people’s scripts in the writing group are invaluable. That’s part of what makes this production of Girl Gumshoe and Detective Dad such a head scratcher for me. Director Immanuel Elliot and a talented ensemble of actors really throw themselves into the absurdity of the script’s central conceit but it all still feels a little off and unfinished somehow.

“We won’t exactly be having housewarming sex if that’s what you mean.”

It’s moving day for Gina (Lauren Diesch) and her girlfriend Sarita (Kathryn Fumie). Gina’s finally leaving her parents’ basement and trying to live an actual adult life at the age of 22. Sarita’s theater friends are a little slow to arrive to help unpack after they opened a show the night before. So Gina’s mother Irene (Kate Bailey) and father Troy (G. Zachariah White) are the only moving crew the young women have to help them settle in at first. Irene is tense and her dislike for Sarita fairly obvious (and sporadically racist), and consistently perplexing. Troy doesn’t seem to want to focus on the task at hand – his daughter leaving home. 

“Ernie’s one of the gay ones, right?”

So Troy resorts to his favorite father/daughter bonding coping mechanism —Girl Gumshoe and Detective Dad. Donning fedoras and goofy accents, Troy and Gina set out to solve mysteries together. This role playing game was cute when Gina was a little girl. Even now, the impulse behind it is sweet. But it also seems progressively stranger and unhealthier the older she gets. To her credit, Gina does try repeatedly to redirect their energies back to unloading the moving van and settling into the apartment. But Troy appears almost obsessed with this method of denial and deflection, to the point where he’s accusing one of the building managers, an odd but kindly old lady named Nan (Fawn Wilderson-Legros), of covering up a murder.

“There’s a lot of love in you. I’m glad you had someone to share it with.”

Despite that description, this is not a dark psychological drama. Neither is it a farce. It’s a comedy, but apart from the alternate reality where father and daughter are playing detective, it’s a comedy grounded in recognizable modern day life. The detective bits are set apart not just by the hats and funny voices, but their own pseudo-film noir soundtrack. The production decision to draw bright solid borders around the role-playing is a gutsy one, but I’m starting to think that it robs the play of a little of its subtlety. After all, as a theater friend of mine pointed out, you can’t do the hat or the voice halfway. The hat is either on or it’s off. You’re either doing a goofy accent or you’re not. So when Gina is torn between the burdens of real life and the playfulness of her father’s fantasy, or when Troy sees his hold on his former life slipping away, it’s hard to convey that netherworld between one choice and another when that in-between gray area has been replaced with a thick dark line.

“There are no means.  There is no motive.  There is no murder.”

The notion of a murder that may or may not have happened is also a tricky one. Both Gina and Troy acknowledge that this life and death imaginary crime is a far cry from trying to find childhood Gina’s missing rubber duck or a set of misplaced house keys. This is an escalation, which in the situation is understandable. This is a major shift in all their lives. Gina may still live nearby, but she’s making a new home and a new life with a new important loved one. An old life is dying, being deliberately abandoned, or killed off, if you will. When Troy interrogates Nan late in the action, he slips and asks not “Where’s the body?” but “Where’s my baby?” But Troy and Gina never address this directly, or even indirectly under the guise of their shared detective story. Troy never really accepts Gina’s change and in fact does all he can to keep it from happening.

“I don’t know what a cahoot is —but you’re in one!”

Troy isn’t doing much better as a husband. Irene lost patience with her husband’s games —games that froze her out of a big part of both Troy and Gina’s lives —long ago. This moving day escalation has pushed her to her limit. It’s this plot line that seems to push the play a bit out of alignment. The title would imply that it’s either Gina’s story or equally hers and Troy’s. But Gina’s secondary plot line, unlike her father’s, only exists offstage, fed to us in exposition about unseen characters we will never meet. Gina’s decision to build her life with a female partner has estranged her from her old friends – but not for the reasons you might expect.  The social isolation is clearly a big deal for Gina, and yet without any onstage manifestation, it remains as nebulous as Sarita’s unseen theater friends who arrive at intermission to help unload her possessions.

“Her mother makes excellent egg salad! What did you do to her?!”

Troy and Irene’s resistance to Gina’s new life also takes a weird turn that can best be summed up as “lesbian sex is strange and icky” (that’s about how adult they are in their responses to it). I understand that no parent likes to think of their little boy or girl growing up and doing “adult” things but their discomfort borders on cartoonish and homophobic. And it’s not like Gina and Sarita spend all their time making out in front of Troy and Irene. They don’t even spend that much time kissing when they’re all alone in their bedroom (which is understandable, they’re distracted and have a lot of moving in to do). There is an extended bit of comic business with a throw pillow designed to look like a vagina that is one of the most successful comic bits of the evening, but it’s unfortunate that there isn’t a more adult conversation taking place around issues of sexuality. If sexuality weren’t an issue at all, that would be one thing—but a lot is made of it throughout the play, particularly the second half. And since there’s already an element of childishness in the gumshoe role-playing, a little of that goes a long way.

“I want to make sure this life is ours, not theirs.”

The production is such a barebones affair that it becomes hard to tell what should rightly be ascribed to the script and what instead are directing and acting choices specific to this production. Barebones as an approach actually works pretty well here, since the play is all about entering an unfurnished space and slowly filling it with stuff. The boundaries and architectural layout of this apartment get a little confusing sometimes, since the imaginary walls don’t always appear to be obeyed. The sudden emergence of a patio in the second half makes things weirder still. However, it was fun to see the production make use of the second level of the People’s Center Theater space, and the sound of hurried footsteps and comical music as actors mounted the stairs made those transitions entertaining.

“By that time, we were on my seventh cat…”

Both Gadfly, and the productions that Eli’s plays are receiving in recent years, get a little bit better each go-round. It makes me look forward to what comes next. In the meantime, though not without its flaws, Girl Gumshoe and Detective Dad is still a new play worth seeing. No matter how well or how long we know a person, human beings are always ultimately a mystery.

3 stars – Recommended


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