A mountain of corny comedy

1812 Productions and Delaware Theatre Company present Bruce Graham’s Flatlanders

3 minute read
Childs & Greer, bundled up against the cold, argue in front of a woodstove in the large living room of a winter vacation home
Fighting wet kindling: Jennifer Childs and Scott Greer in 1812’s ‘Flatlanders.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

The Flatlanders, on stage at Plays and Players Theatre from 1812 Productions, feels like a throwback to the heyday of the Neil Simon-style boulevard comedy. You could imagine it debuting any time in the 1960s or 1970s, bound for bus-and-truck touring companies and summer stock.

Although it resembles a relic from an earlier age, the play is instead a world premiere with an estimable pedigree. Written by the prolific Bruce Graham (Tommy and Me, The Philly Fan) and directed by the equally busy Matt Pfeiffer, it stars Jennifer Childs and Scott Greer, two of Philadelphia’s most in-demand actors. Yet, like the wet kindling that one character tries in vain to ignite on a snowy night, this slim, anemic comedy fails to catch fire.

A new marriage on ice

The work takes its title from a derisive nickname given by Poconos residents to city dwellers. Two such urbanites, Ronnie (Childs) and Michael (Greer), find themselves stranded upstate after their Mercedes drifts into a snowbank. In an effort to not freeze to death, they muscle their way into an empty vacation home, then spend the subsequent 70 minutes ransacking the joint as they simultaneously ponder the state of their relationship.

The audience finds the couple on the eve of their now-jeopardized wedding, coming belatedly after a 14-year courtship. The ensuing blizzard has given divorcée Ronnie a case of cold feet, while never-married Michael remains optimistically ready for a trip down the aisle. There is poignant material to be mined here in the exploration of a marriage in late middle age, as well as the potential loss of identity that worries Ronnie as she moves from partner to wife.

Shockingly corny comedy

Instead, Graham reaches incessantly for the bottom branches of low-hanging fruit. The couple bicker constantly without much depth. The dialogue is chock-full of expository detail that a longstanding couple wouldn’t need to rehash. When Ronnie and Michael learn that their unwitting hosts engage in BDSM play, it leads to relentlessly unfunny sight gags with sex toys and blatant kink shaming. Mixed with lines about the bucolic Poconos (where one presumably doesn’t encounter unhoused people on a daily basis), it all gives a strong whiff of reactionary conservatism.

In addition to their storied careers on local stages, Childs and Greer have been a real-life couple for nearly 30 years. Still, they demonstrate precious little chemistry—neither their affection nor their exasperation is believable—and their performances tend to linger on one sustained note. Their best moments are quiet and physical: dancing as “Mandy” by Barry Manilow plays on a transistor radio or huddling close together for warmth, realizing again their affection for each other. But the overall style of shockingly corny comedy is similar to what one might expect from a quickly canceled sitcom.

A slow 75 minutes

It’s also hard to recognize in Pfeiffer’s direction the skill and style that made A Case for the Existence of God at Theatre Exile so deeply affecting. The production’s best qualities are physical: Colin McIlvaine’s scenic design is imposing and impersonal, perfect for AirBnB territory; Alyssandra Docherty’s lighting vividly captures a bleak midwinter snowstorm; Christopher Colucci’s sound design provides the only genuine humor on display through radio cut-ins that play during the three perfunctory scene changes. But even at a scant hour and 15 minutes, the play continually drags in its pacing.

After this initial run in Philadelphia, The Flatlanders moves to Delaware Theatre Company in April and May. Here’s hoping that Pfeiffer, Childs, and Greer can deepen the characters through a second round of rehearsals and that Graham returns to his laptop to search for some actual comedy. If not, The Flatlanders will continue to flatline.

On February 16, the company announced this production is closing early due to illness.

What, When, Where

The Flatlanders. By Bruce Graham, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. 1812 Productions and Delaware Theatre Company. Through February 18, 2024, at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, and April 17 through May 5 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (215) 592-9560 or 1812productions.org.


A ramp is available for patrons who use wheelchairs or require mobility assistance. However, all restrooms are located on the basement level of Plays and Players Theatre, which is accessible only by stairs. Wheelchair-accessible and companion seating must be purchased by calling (215) 592-9560 or emailing [email protected].

There will be an open-captioned performance of The Flatlanders on Thursday, February 8, at 7pm. Masks are required for the performances on Sunday, February 11, at 2pm, and Thursday, February 15. at 7pm.

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