The Glorious Gift That Was Once 'Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant' has Morphed Into a Mostly Boring Sit, With Food 

Although it has been joked about for decades, it isn't clear if any child, or any adult for that matter, ever actually received a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. Other than perhaps President Trump, who loves coal with unreserved passion, nobody wants that.

And yet, here we have a large pile of it in the form of the new Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant, A Snowball's Chance, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. This is the touring company's fourth holiday visit to CPT, and this critic was looking forward to it like a child awaiting the long-anticipated arrival of a Barbie Dream House.

After all, in past iterations Conni's was a hilarious, naughty and constantly surprising experience punctuated by the serving of a delicious five-course meal. And since the audience sits at long tables, conversation with tablemates is encouraged. So what's not to like?

But this time around, the former Conni's magic has been replaced with slack pacing and performers who are only occasionally amusing. This is particularly painful for your faithful scribe, since I have been a constant and rabid supporter of the Conni's franchise since it first landed here in 2010. In my personal life, I begged and pleaded to have my friends and neighbors go and sample the joy of Conni's outrageous and skillful insanity.

But the current troupe is a pale copy of what has gone before. Even though there are a couple holdovers from the previous ensemble, including ever-reliable "Sue James," the snap and wit are almost entirely missing in action. By the way, that's not her real name, since all of the actors perform under pseudonyms. And this year, that's a blessing for them.

For the uninitiated, Conni's is intended to be a brash, bold, no-holds-barred take on a quirky restaurant populated by nine amusing characters. Some of them are humans dressed as animals, and some not, who perform various skits and songs loosely wrapped around a nubbin of a plot.

That storyline hasn't changed, even though this version has been given a new subtitle. That tale involves a young woman called Muffin Character Hanshake, a reputed star of stage and screen. She is theatrically inseminated onstage and quickly gets pregnant, only to have her pregnancy transferred to Sue James during a sex act of questionable authenticity.

If that sounds gross, it's not. Nor is it particularly funny in this iteration since the woman who plays Hanshake displays no comic timing and does not exude the charisma necessary to keep the restaurant patrons amused or even slightly diverted. Her character, such as it is, wobbles ineffectually between slightly irritated and vaguely uninterested.

That problem is frequently present with the other cast members, who go through their paces with a remarkable lack of both passion and a joyful sense of the absurd. In past productions, the company was anchored by Mrs. Robinson, a young guy playing an aging Brit rock star who held nothing back, exuded a dangerous wild streak, and was hilarious in the process. There is no such headline performer in this current troupe, which is composed of people dutifully delivering lines and not committing fully to the frenzy of farce.

Much of the responsibility for this situation must fall to director Cynthia Coot, who doesn't manage to make a theatrical silk purse out of the acting material she has assembled.

Let's face it, most of the jokes and puns in this show are either old or terrible or both. And that's fine, as long as there's enough manic energy to lift the material to another level, like boats in a harbor. But when that electric energy isn't present, the tide is out and the lame jokes are stuck awkwardly in the sand, generating polite laughter if any at all.

Among the lonely boats are the characters that never rise above the banal. The two animal characters, a bear and a bee, apparently think their costumes are sufficiently chuckle-inducing to let them off the hook in terms of creating anything funny themselves. The same is true of a growly German guy and a female "world-renowned performance arsonist" who don't generate even a modicum of amusement.

Is anything good here? Well, the little choreographed dances the company does when serving each course are pleasant to behold. There are a couple of pretty good singers. And the cast, which includes four "nurses" performed by local actors, is very attentive to your food and drink needs.

But with little flow and no star power, this Conni's never reaches the delirious heights it achieved in the past. If you haven't seen it before, you may find it sort of mildly okay. But that's a far cry from the outrageous head-trip it should be.

When the audience is eating, nothing much happens performance-wise, which makes sense. But that inactivity often stretches on too long, slowing the show's momentum to a crawl.

Even the chef's concoction in Course No. 2, potato leek soup, isn't nearly as good as their former curried butternut squash soup.

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