Bundle of Trouble

When it came time to perform “Bundle of Trouble,” the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley did one of the smartest things you can do with a Ruth and Nathan Hale script: they rewrote it.

Eric Jensen, a Salt Lake City-based actor, writer and improvisationalist, plays sloppy quasi-divorcee Jeff Baker in the broad family comedy. He is also credited with having “revised” the 1980 script.

Some of the changes were to update it (now there are computers), but the more important ones were in the dialogue. I haven’t read the original, but I know enough of Jensen’s and the Hales’ styles to guess which parts belong to whom. Loosely speaking, the clever and fast-paced dialogue is Jensen’s handiwork, while the corny, homespun material is all Hale.

Jeff speaks to the audience and even interacts with them; in fact, an on-stage row of chairs has been added to put audience members within striking range of Jensen’s quick, good-natured rapport. (Tuesday night, he commissioned a man to give him an occasional “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” as a barometer of how the jokes were going.)

He tells us (warns us?) from the outset that the play will resemble a sitcom, which it does. Jeff, a semi-employed scientist, has his life turned upside-down when his wife Annette (Kristina Barrus; double-cast with Cindy Christensen), from whom he’s been separated for four years, drops their daughter off to stay with him while she goes away on business.

Jeff hasn’t seen 6-year-old LeeLee (Tabitha Barrus; double-cast with Caitlin Meyer) since she was a toddler, and she’s turned into quite a precocious little terror. He has no idea how to raise a child, and doesn’t even seem interested in trying (it doesn’t take a degree in Family Science to know not to let your child pour Coke on her breakfast cereal).

A social services woman named Merced Mason (Jenn B. Porter; double-cast with Stephanie Rider) gets involved. She’s a one-dimensional sketch-comedy ice queen with a sour, Church Lady look on her face, but as a character, she’s nowhere near as annoying as LuAnn Appleby (Michelle Linn Hall), a horrific, man-hungry cow who pursues Jeff in a manner too relentless and desperate to be funny.

The dialogue is mostly very breezy, full of wordplay and other verbal shenanigans. (In response to someone criticizing his cereal-heavy diet, Jeff says, “It’s my Life, so stay out of it!”) A few missteps remain — such as the characters, all Californians, referring to soda as “pop” — but they are few. At times, Jensen’s antics do seem out-of-place in a play that is mostly grounded in reality; in real life, you can’t hop around and act clownish without people looking at you funny, but no one bats at eye at Jeff’s ridiculous behavior. But honest or not, it gets the laughs, and that was, I believe, the point.

I was glad to be very familiar with both Eric Jensen's and Ruth Hale's previous works, as it helped me identify who contributed what to this play. I didn't want to be catty and say all the funny parts were Eric's and all the lame parts were Ruth's, but the fact is....

I don't know when I've despised a character on such a personal level as much as I despised LuAnn Appleby. I don't mean I hated the actress playing her, because I'm sure she's a person. I really mean I hated the character, that if she were a real person and I met her, I would smack her in the face or run her down with my car or something.

Of course, since this review wasn't ENTIRELY positive, it elicited some angry feedback. Two people posted comments on the Daily Herald Web site. The first is as follows, from one "Katherine Sproul":

Though the old Sny-guy did give this play a B, which isn't bad, I believe it deserves an A -- hands down.

All of the characters work well together and are superb. I don't think Merced was one-dimensional, or that LuAnn was not relentless or desperate. Hello! That WAS her character. [Wait -- You just said she wasn't relentless or desperate, but now you're saying that was her character.] She stole the show as far as I'm concerned. I do agree that Jensen's rewrites did add to the show to make it more modern and less cheesy.

Snider reminds me of a prima donna. [Here is a case of someone having heard the phrase "prima donna" before, used in a negative manner, and decided to use it against me, even though it makes no sense.] He better be careful...or a man-hungry cow will go after him...especially because he lives in Provo.

So I don't know what her deal was. Anyway, here came this one, from someone named "Robert Smith." Its various inconsistencies and absurdities will be addressed afterward.

Snider? Wasn't that the guy who was the annoying neighbor that used to eye Valerie B. with a more than congenial stare. As I recall Snider had little to no taste and had a problem with hygiene.

How is it that A "critic?" that works for a po-dunk utah county newspaper, who is an abject failure at performing arts himself considers himself worldly enough to even rate any play let alone a movie?

Now I know that Utah county is famous for its strictness of demeanor and I have also heard that nepetism runs rampant in nearly every business. That leads me to believe that SCHNIDER is either considered a decent critic by the (HA-HA) inteligensia of the Herald or daddy works there.

All this is neither here nor there. Point in fact, B.O.T. is a delightful play for the family. And the actors are quite professional especially Luann(M. Hall) and Jeff(E. Jensen.) Enough said.

Maybe Mr.(and I use the term loosely) Snider should consider writing for a more appropriate rag such as the City Weekly. Or maybe he should take his daddy to see B.O.T. and this time sit in the front row. Which was probably his reason for giving M.Hall such a scathing review. Jealousy will do that even to the best of us which Mr. Snider does not belong.


I posted a reply that went as follows:

Thanks for the mature, well-considered response. Comparing me to a fictional character (whose name was Schneider, by the way) represents the very zenith of the stimulating intellectual discussion to which the Daily Herald Web site aspires. The unfounded declaration that I am an "abject failure at performing arts" (when in fact I've never done any serious acting of any kind) provokes deep thought indeed, particularly as it relates to your assertion that this alleged "failure" prevents me from being a good reviewer. By the same logic, the aspersions you cast at my reviewing skills might just be the result of your having failed once at being a theater critic. Indeed, if you ever attempted professional writing, I doubt you succeeded at it, given the 14 (at minimum) spelling and/or punctuation errors found in your brief, Mensa-quality rebuttal.

There was no response.