FORT MYERS BEACH — Tea is that most refined of beverages. The British conquered half the known world, but stopped halfway through the afternoon, be it Africa, India, China or South America for a nice pot of oolong and some biscuits. Now, with her play "A Teatime Travesty," Laurie Nienhaus conquers Fort Myers Beach.
Nienhaus, a longtime local author, speaker, presenter and (of course) aficionado of all things Camellia sinensis, writes gentle and genteel farces set in and about tea rooms. Her characters drink tea at two, banter at three and murder by four.
And then there's the one-liners: "Yes, it is difficult for your average tarnished harlot to understand the passion one can feel for the plant world." Or this quaint number: "Lordy, she dropped like a tick off a dead hound."
"A Teatime Travesty," which enjoyed four near-sellout dates at the Holiday Inn on Fort Myers Beach in early October, has been steeping (tea pun) for years. "Travesty" (the show is anything but!) finds a gaggle of ladies gathered at Miss Margaret's Lily Pond Tea Room. Reclusive botanist Fern Well (she's QUITE unwell) plans to address a society luncheon about roses. But why are there Venus Flytraps on each table? And who's that strange man in a mustache who just started work at the Lily Pond?
After rewrites galore, input from a multitude of strong actors and the talented hand of director Rick Sebastian, tea is served. Nienhaus fashions a sturdy one-act farce about tea for two, lost loves, social climbers, party crashers, ambitious newspapermen and a sad little plant named Bertram. I've seen the play before, when the (much-missed) Pelican Players presented a version at Brambles Tea Room in downtown Naples.
I'm a confirmed coffee person, but this little cup of tea is quite delicious. Sebastian convinces his thoroughly amateur actors of the essential farcical nature of the piece - and they respond. Carrie Hill's heartbroken botanist Fern (yep, it's a farce) admires herself in the reflection of a spade. Elizabeth Halladay swoops in as tough-talking Wendy Ray, "a guest who’s just dying to stay." Wait for the moment she uses that wicked cigarette holder like a sword. Tom Crosby charms as the mysterious, mustachioed stranger.
Jessie Titus sparkles as conniving schemer Mable Fontaine. Mable never met a Polaroid she didn't want to be a part of or a party she didn't want an invite to. Titus squawks, squeals and scene-steals with abandon as she jostles for attention with Neva Cole's purring, clueless Lydia Sunnybrook. An insane wig-snatching denouement brought a wave of laughter.
Look for the author herself, playing the role of Miss Margaret. Nienhaus wisely sidelines herself from much of the physical comedy, but offers up sly one-liners, like an ever-expanding list of rules and flirtatious "High Hopes" tea. Carmine Pacchino floats (and flirts) as a wiseacre society reporter with an ever-active flashbulb.
Suggestions? Nienhaus can always tinker with her script; there's probably a strong two-act, seven character farce in there if she wanted to put the work in. Like all farces, the show needs room, as in physical space. Allow actors freedom to sit down at tables and "talk" to guests, be it scripted bits or improv. Beyond that, space frees up the actors to develop comedy - imagine Fern & Wendy fencing with the garden spade and cigarette holder. The teatime subject matter also makes an outdoor venue - perhaps the Edison Ford Estates or the Burroughs Home - an attractive proposition.
"Travesty" represents amateur theater at its finest. Dozens of ladies (most garbed in their Sunday finest) packed a conference room, nibbled sandwiches and tiny key lime pies before settling in to watch - and laugh time and again. No one - not the crowd, not the cast - left anything but satisfied in the fullest.
"I must say, this has been quite an afternoon." Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.