Brad has two kids. Oscar is old enough to use the bathroom by himself, but he tends to miss the toilet. Evie’s still in diapers, and she knows to proudly announce when they’re freshly full. For the world premiere of Stinkers, the Jungle Theater has employed puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren, with actors Megan M. Burns and Reed Sigmund, to bring Evie and Oscar vibrantly alive.
Playwright Josh Tobiessen and the Jungle’s creative team, under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen, have so much fun with temporarily single dad Brad (John Catron) and his energetic rugrats that unless you did your homework, you might never guess that Stinkers was developed as a showcase for actor Sally Wingert, who plays Brad’s mom, Joyce.
With a 90-minute running time, Stinkers would have plenty of gold to mine from the amusingly frank kids, their loving but harried dad, and their ex-con grandma. Tobiessen loads his script, though, with two superfluous supporting characters and a plot that turns on offstage financial shenanigans after Brad puts some obviously misplaced trust in his freshly freed mother.
The opening scenes are dominated by Brad’s friend Calvin (Nate Cheeseman), a Kevin Smith-lite slacker full of pronouncements that are as boring as they are loud. George Keller is more intriguing as Lilith, Joyce’s former “co-worker” (at the prison)—but this isn’t Lilith’s story, and she remains largely an enigma until a rushed epiphany at play’s end.
The play’s balance of gag-based humor and gentle life lessons gives it the feel of an extended sitcom episode. That’s not entirely a bad thing, especially when the show employs visual comedy like Calvin’s battle with a wasps’ nest and Joyce’s not-so-secret cash stash. Set designer Warren’s attractive but lived-in lake house allows action to unfold on multiple levels simultaneously.
Despite its overplotted distractions, Stinkers succeeds on the basis of a strong family dynamic anchored by the delightfully curt Wingert and Catron, who excels in the leading-man role of a dedicated dad. It’s a treat to see Children’s Theatre Company star Sigmund on the Jungle stage, and Burns goes toe-to-toe with him in their scenes together; Tobiessen has a sharp ear for the absurd logic of young siblings’ obsessively symbiotic relationships.
In the program, Tobiessen writes about how nervous he was to write a play he knew would feature Wingert, making her return to the Jungle after a 15-year absence. He’s given Joyce some snappy dialogue that Wingert delivers with gusto, but the best thing he did for her was to give her a pair of pint-size co-stars, painting her character as part of a broader picture.
There are a lot of plays about adults and their aging parents revisiting past missteps. There are very few that show their impact on the first steps of a new generation.