Okay, I’ll admit I went into the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill on opening night of the comedy Baggage expecting another June/moon/spoon romance-comedy. And sure enough, that’s just the way it started.
A man and a woman grab each other’s suitcases at an airport carousel, and when he takes hers to her apartment for an exchange, they find they are polar opposites and start bickering at first glance.
"Here we go again," I thought with a slight roll of the eyes. "They’ll have some amusing encounters and end up in each other’s arms. Ho-hum."
Indeed, I thought, the only thing that could save the play was that director Theresa Stenger’s cast are four of the best, multi-award-winning actors in the entire Tampa Bay area: Betsy Glasson and Sam Petricone as the battling couple, Phyllis and Bradley, with Ernie Rowland as the pompous, know-it-all Dr. Jonathan Alexander and Cheryl Roberts as Phyllis’s much-married, man-hungry bestie, Mitzi Cartwright. Those four really could make reading the telephone directory interesting.
Then, about 10 or 15 minutes in, playwright Sam Bobrick takes his play in a direction I’ve never seen done with such charm on stage or screen, and suddenly Baggage turns into one of the absolutely most delightful evenings I could ever hope to spend. Could it be that something new and different is about to take place?
I won’t spoil the fun by telling exactly what happens; best you spring for $20 ($15 if you’re a student) and go see how the pros make a fine little script into a great little show.
Suffice to say that Glasson’s comic timing is a thing of beauty. She is always a pleasure to behold, and she’s in top form as the picky-picky editor for a book publisher whose apartment is as imaginative as a bowl of oatmeal — serviceable, but unexciting. Glasson knows how to land a line right on the money, not too saccharine, not too sharp, always just right for the situation.
Phyllis’s fluid behavior is enhanced by excellent light design and execution by Nicole Moore and Jeanene Maclean, who, for one scene, cast a white light on Phyllis’s blue satin robe-de-chambre that makes her look as seductive as a movie siren, then add yellow for the next scene to make the wrapping appear as frowzy as a fishwife’s. Maclean’s right-on-cue light changes boost the impact of Bobrick’s clever script.
Petricone is a splendid foil to Glasson’s Phyllis, as Bradley, the IRS attorney, a wreck of a human being whose every move and utterance just scream, "Kick me." Which Phyllis is ready to do in her quest to make him the perfect man she has always sought. Petricone’s Bradley can go from annoying to adorable in a flash, his temper from Mr. Milquetoast to Snidely Whiplash on the flip of a potato pancake.
That’s where Rowland’s Dr. Alexander comes in, the wise guy with all the answers, most of them in the three books he peddles as shamelessly as a Washington insider selling state secrets to a Russian oligarch. Rowland fluffed a couple of lines on opening night. But, pro that he is, that will be corrected by the time anyone else sees this play.
Then there’s Roberts’s zany Mitzi, with wild red hair, questionable judgment in men, an apartment that causes instant nausea and an opinion for every occasion.
This character is tailor-made for Roberts’s strong suit — melodramatic, over-the-top, oddball and thoroughly likable.
Bouquets, too, for Stenger’s costumes, Mary Petricone’s set detailing and stage manager Jay Ingle, all of which add to the credibility of the show.
Baggage isn’t just about suitcases; it’s about the baggage that most sentient human beings carry throughout their lives. There’s a line or a situation — heck, perhaps the entire play — that will resonate with anyone in the audience over the age of 13 who has ever found themselves saying the same thoughtless things, making the same self-destructive moves or defending the same irrational decisions. In other words, being human.