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Shel Silverstein shorts upstage Table 12, a play featuring the worst wedding guests

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In a program note for Table 12, director Nicole Wilder suggests that the show might have "some parallel to our current political process." One thing the work certainly has in common with some of this year's presidential debates is that it asks us to empathize with several unlikable characters who seem to hate each other almost as much as they hate themselves.

Ruth Virkus' play, now being staged at the Phoenix by Freshwater Theatre, is set in the hinterlands of a wedding reception, where a motley assortment of bottom-tier guests are thrown together at a single table. It's a situation that everyone can relate to, but even at the most distant cousin's wedding you've never met characters quite like these.

Family friends Christophe (Ben Layne) and Leroylyn (Katie Starks) are the first to be seated. Evangelicals who are as credulous as they are garrulous, they make their living painting novelty gourds. Mave (Rachel Flynn), the bride's work supervisor, thinks she's being punished for something — especially since she ends up sitting next to Charlie (Scot Moore), a cousin of the groom's who's romantically obsessed with the bride and therefore has been placed under the strict supervision of a waiter (Michael Terrell Brown).

Table 12 also hosts a sad sack named Saul (J. Merrill Motz) and a mystery man (Michael Postle) who stepped in after another guest fell victim to a heart condition. But the real life of the party is a lady named Amy whose plan seems to be to drink for two until her blind date shows up. Amy's played by Mame Pelletier, who provides the spark of energy this show sorely needs, throwing herself with utter abandon into a sloppy make-out session that ends up under the table.

When the characters start trading theories on the elusive and possibly illusory nature of love, you get the impression that this is meant to be a play that makes you laugh and makes you think. Unfortunately, for me, it did little of either. The broadly farcical elements sit awkwardly with the more sincere sentiments, and these characters are just so grating that it's hard to care what happens to them. The deadpan physical comedy works best; like some failed marriages, Table 12 could have used less talk and more action.

Lacey and John Zeiler serve as a sort of opening act for Table 12, presenting two short plays by Shel Silverstein. The pair of actors have worked up several of these for a hit 2010 Fringe show and other, more recent, performances. Here, they do two dark comedies. "The Best Daddy" is about a father who has a peculiar idea of a birthday surprise, and "One Tennis Shoe" has a husband forced to confront his wife about an increasingly bizarre habit. It's a too-brief sampler that leaves one wishing they'd revived even more of these tart miniatures.

IF YOU GO:

Table 12

Through April 3

Showtimes vary, visit www.freshwatertheatre.com/t12adultshel for a complete schedule.