At the titular eatery in “Riot at Flo’s Cafe,” you can order up a slice of life just as easily as a slice of pie.
The new play, by Villa Playhouse owner W. Bill Brown Jr., is debuting at the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, where the cozy setting makes the semi-autobiographical story all the more intimate. Even though it may never completely grab your attention or affections, it’s certainly a quaint glimpse into 1950s small-town life — sort of a “Happy Days” meets “Our Town” kind of thing.
It’s the fall of 1956, and Tilly (Dana Campbell; double-cast with MinD Jensen) is running the cafe while mom Flo (Anne Jackson) is visiting a sick relative. The local sheriff, Zeke (Scott Tarbet), is a jovial teddy-bear of a guy, and he and local steel worker Bob (Mike Huffaker) eat breakfast there every morning.
Other regulars include Eloise (Joan Shippen) and Bonnie (Arlene McGregor), who play gin rummy with Flo and talk about whatever’s going on in town.
Usually, “whatever’s going on in town” is absolutely nothing. But suddenly, things have gone crazy. Flo has a pinball machine in the cafe, and food prizes are given out for high scores, making it a sort of gambling. As such, no one under 18 is allowed to play. But town delinquent James Bracken (Michael Roberts; double-cast with Ben Phelan) takes a break from abusing his eager-for-abuse girlfriend Liz (Kathryn Ruzicka) one day just long enough to lie about his age and play a game.
His busy-body mother, the shrill, strutting, over-gesturing Mildred Bracken (Susan Phelan) is furious at this “den of iniquity” (she’s one of those moms who doesn’t like to admit her son’s a cretin) and has Flo arrested for allowing it.
Though James is more oafish (“dumb broad” is what he calls Liz) and his mother more unreasonable than even the strangest people we meet in real life, the characters are generally realistic in their quiet, dull little lives. (Jeff Carter as soft-spoken, stumbling cook Blaine is particularly endearing, and he plays the physical comedy well without overdoing it.) Even the “huge” crisis of Flo receiving a citation never seems like a life-or-death thing, but in this town, that kind of event passes for mayhem.
“This town” is nebulous. We know playwright Bill Brown’s mother ran a cafe in Provo in the 1950s, but Provo is never mentioned. It could be Anytown, U.S.A. — except for one sarcastic reference in which a character is called “Bishop” for giving up coffee.
The script could use some streamlining, as the characters often summarize events we already know about, and other times give us information we don’t need. The manner of establishing backstory is odd, too: Characters ask each other no fewer than seven questions, all in the first act, that begin “How long has it been…?” (How long has Blaine worked here, how long has the sheriff been coming here, how long since Flo’s divorce, etc.)
In all, “Riot at Flo’s Cafe” is a pleasant, simple play with a happy ending and general good-naturedness throughout — much like the decade it represents.
Did anyone ever really call women "dumb broads" to their faces? And did the women ever really put up with it? I mean outside of movies and stuff. Maybe I'm showing my age (under 50) by even doubting such a phenomenon, but it sure seems strange.