That sense of impending doom mingled with black humor is much in evidence in the world premiere of Eric Coble's Ten Minutes From Cleveland, now at Dobama Theatre. Set on a handsomely painted set designed by Todd S. Krispinsky, the collection of playlets attempts to show how folks interact with each other at various familiar city venues, from the Jake to the Flats. When the playwright focuses on the humor inherent in many of the vignettes, the results are giddily invigorating and frequently hilarious.
Dobama's six-person cast, with each actor playing various parts, is equal to the challenge of creating a representative group of Cleveland types -- although the poor are largely invisible (odd in this, the country's poorest major city). But Coble hits for a high average, with three of his mini-plays scoring big and several others doing almost as well. What don't work are two scenes in which Coble strains for deeper meaning by manipulating unbelievable characters. Also, he fails to interweave these varied events into a smooth fabric of Cleveland reality -- taken as a whole, the result feels more stapled together than neatly loomed.
It begins on the Detroit-Superior Bridge, where a Case professor (Marc Moritz) is busily analyzing the structural integrity of the span and finding it lacking. Playwright Coble tries, with varying success, to employ the deteriorating bridge as a metaphor for Cleveland's eternal east-west division and the town's rusty strengths and weaknesses.
The most entertaining bit takes place in that shopping monstrosity, Legacy Village, the artificially conceived Whoville for the upwardly acquisitive, where a band of Coldwater-Creek-clad squatters have become Villagers on a permanent basis. Led by Desmond (a blissfully appreciative Nick Koesters), three of the quasi-residents try to explain their protected lifestyle to a shopper (played by harried and disbelieving Nan Wray), who eventually decides to join their happy troop. By fully delivering on a sharp premise that tweaks hyperconsumerism and supplying bagsful of laughs, this scene sets a high standard.
Almost as satisfying is a half-inning at an Indians home game, where a stat-obsessed Tribe fanatic (Wray) is juxtaposed with a drunk (Koesters), his couldn't-care-less girlfriend, and assorted other fans. Director Eric Schmiedl keeps their multitiered interplay perfectly in tune here, as he does in a West Side Market sequence where the stall owners are selling (ecch) low-carb pierogi. In another successful segment, Moritz is funny as a middle-aged New Jersey tourist who wants to do his wife in the backseat of Janis Joplin's psychedelic Porsche at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while an African American man (Jimmie Woody) and a retro-hippie queen have other plans for the iconic display. Charismatic Kimberly L. Brown shines in a few roles, including as a frazzled Cleveland Clinic doctor who's up to her stethoscope in challenging patients as well as an aggressive pill-pusher. Strong throughout, Sadie Grossman stands out in the concluding scene as a totally zonked career gal.
Among the pieces that fall short are a couple of serious ones set on an RTA train and at Lake View Cemetery. In the former, a white woman from the suburbs chats up a black man hustling from job to job. Little of the dialogue feels genuine, and their supposed shared background (piano-playing) is a thin sliver on which to build even a momentary emotional connection. And in the graveyard, an older woman, spewing some obscurities about the evanescence of life, convinces a young tagger to stop spraying his initials on Rockefeller's tomb and come hear stories about her dead mother. Right. In a promising vignette that pits a trendy young couple in Tremont against their old-school neighbor, the humor is undercut, since the next-door tough guy (Moritz) comes off more like the professor with his shirt unbuttoned than a beer-swilling clod with a yard full of litter.
Ten Minutes From Cleveland feels like a caring postcard addressed both to our city and to Dobama, as this is the last major production before the theater company moves on to new stages next season. Happily, there are enough moments that work in this show to make it fond and fitting as Dobama's farewell to Coventry Road -- which is, appropriately, about 10 minutes from Cleveland.