PITTSFIELD — Very early in Jessica Provenz’ ho-hum comedy “Boca” at Barrington Stage Company’s Production Center Tent, there is a friendly, high-stakes poker game run by a retired kindergarten teacher named Susan (Debra Jo Rupp), a nice Catholic Wellesley College alum who has moved to Royal Palm Polo Club, a gated senior community in Boca Raton, Fla., with her husband, Luis (Gilbert Cruz), and her sock puppet, Mr. Noodle, from their upscale suburban Connecticut home. For this afternoon of poker, Susan has invited to her condo two women who also live at Royal Palm — Janet (April Ortiz), a three-time widow on the prowl for a fourth husband, and Elaine (Peggy Pharr Wilson), a widow from Long Island who shares her condo unit with some Pomeranians and is so lonely for companionship she will resort to anything — as we see later in the first act — to get a boyfriend.
Susan is not one to leave loose ends. At this point, having survived a life-threatening illness, she has mortality on her mind. She has tied all her affairs up in neat little bundles. The only remaining loose end is her “hot” Latin husband. She wants to make sure someone will be there for him after her death. So, Susan has decided to make Luis the prize in a winner-take-all round of Texas Hold ‘Em with her as dealer and Janet and Elaine vying for the jackpot.
Susan (who is splendidly played by Rupp — more on that in just a moment) may tip her hand early in “Boca” but it’s not until the very beginning of “Boca’s” second act that she tips Provenz’s hand as well.
Provenz was commissioned to write this evening of 12 short interrelated plays through Barrington Stage’s Sydelle Blatt New Works Commissioning Program. It is a program, Provenz and “Boca” director Julianne Boyd (who also is BSC’s artistic director) have said, that is designed purely for laughs and (there certainly were laughs aplenty at “Boca’s” opening Wednesday night). No deep, underlying moral lessons here, Provenz has said.
As it happens, Provenz can’t help herself. She’s a compassionate, smart, human being. While the first act drifts, Provenz comes to the heart of her matter in the second half, beginning right from the act’s opening scene in a speech Susan is giving at a candidates’ night before residents of the Royal Palm community.
Susan is running for president of the condo board. In what is easily Provenz most accomplished writing in “Boca” (I suspect because it’s her most personal), Susan disregards prepared remarks filled with boilerplate about why she is best suited to be president. Instead, she tells an intensely personal story about her battle with a degenerative illness, Fuchs Syndrome, “when the cells in the clear part of your eye start to die;” her embarrassment in a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe failure at her first appearance at the condo swimming pool; her recovery from a cornea transplant and the discovery when she opens her eyes after surgery of a room filled with blue balloons, her favorite color, a gesture, it turns out, from her “non-friends” at the pool.
“I found the women who, over the next decade, would show up for me,” Susan says, adding later on, “This place is about so much more than palm trees and fancy cars and tan lines. It’s about people who show up for each other. … My neighbors. You have taught me the meaning of a word we all learn in kindergarten: community.” What reads like mawkish sentiment on a printed page sounds very much like revelation coming from Rupp’s mouth. It’s a sentiment that goes to the very heart of “Boca,” particularly in the second half.
Showing up is very much on the mind of Royal Palm’s resident curmudgeon, Marty, a generally excessive Robert Zukerman (who also plays an 80-something hard-of-hearing retired rabbi who is not afraid to invoke the name of God when he cheats, in a good cause, in a highly competitive community golf tournament). Marty shoos Janet away when she tries to occupy Mo’s regular, now vacant, space next to Marty on a bench outside the Royal Palm’s Club. “Mo shows up,” he growls forcefully. Showing up also is very much on Marty’s mind only moments later when, in another beautifully crafted, poignantly delivered speech, he recounts for Mo, as if he were there, the joy and fulfillment he felt playing league baseball in his neighborhood as a teen; his failed opportunity to become part of his beloved New York Yankees; his profound disappointment that his father never showed up to see his son play “just one game, one practice even. It would have meant the world.”
Showing up is most definitely the game in “Boca’s” penultimate scene, “On the Rocks” (a version of which appeared in BSC’s 2021 10X10 New Plays Festival), when Susan and Luis’ friends show up at their house to break the Yom Kippur fast only to learn that Susan has died and that Luis is preserving her body with dry ice. He is determined to keep her death secret from the community until after the election and she has been declared winner. And, of course, everyone is more than willing to help sustain the deception. And it should be no surprise that the absent Mo (Kenneth Tigar) does finally show up, reassuring Marty — and reassured himself — that all is for the best, and restored, in this best of all possible worlds behind the gates of this senior community in Boca Raton.
Provenz juggles a lot of balls here. Working off the pattern of BSC’s popular 10X10 New Plays Festival, she has written 11 short plays and an epilogue that examine the lives of and interactions among 12 residents of this Southern Florida community, performed by a cast of six, with each actor playing two roles.
Provenz has designed each play to stand alone. At the same time, there may be references in one play to events that have occurred in another; actions triggered in one play, the consequences of which are referenced later on. But, partly through her writing, partly through the performances, there is little for us to care about. The writing is uneven. Some scenes — “End of an Error” in which a retired Anglican priest, Father Tom (Cruz) and his wife, Barbie (Wilson) regain their sexual spark while each is wrapped neck to toe in seaweed scrubs; and “The Back Nine,” which finds Father Tom, a rabbi and a lawyer facing an ethical question in the midst of a heated golf tournament — are pure misfires.
Rupp is pure delight as Mo’s wife, Iris, whose misunderstanding of a bizarre wedding anniversary gift from Mo sends her off on a Thelma-and-Louise-seeming flight from routine with Royal Palm’s yoga instructor, Louise (Ortiz), triggering Silver Alerts all over Southern Florida.
Rupp is nothing short of incandescent as Susan, who in her 60s can’t help but to occasionally employ a kind of condescending kindergarten tone in her conversations with people and even bring out her well-worn sock puppet, Mr. Noodle, to admonish people when they get out of line. Rupp is meticulous in her attention to detail — physical and vocal. In a show that is meant to emphasize ensemble, Rupp alone is worth the price of admission.
Tigar is fine as both the hopelessly optimistic Mo and a widower lawyer, Bruce, who, in a community of 105 men to 400 women, is considered “fresh meat.”
Wilson has a touching moment as Elaine, who redefines the art of home invasion to use Bruce’s stomach to capture his heart in “Stay, Please,” which made its initial appearance in the 2020 10X10. But, on the whole, what “Boca” misses is that very sense of community, of connection among and between characters. This is an experienced, veteran cast working under Boyd’s experienced direction. But, with the singular exception of Rupp and, to a lesser degree, Tigar, the performances here are little more than by-the-numbers. For all the amenities Royal Palm Polo Club provides, “Boca” is little more than a series of efficiency units where the game of choice, rather than poker, is Trivial Pursuit.