Patrons exiting Jimmy Ferraro's Studio Theatre after having seen the comedy Cookin' with Gus will probably be asking themselves three questions:
1. How did director Ferraro manage to snare four of the area's top performers to be in this one show?
2. How does the Studio Theatre's tiny stage manage to contain all that prodigious talent?
3. How do the walls of the theater in downtown New Port Richey withstand all the laughter and applause of the audience without severely cracking or crumbling?
Yes, that's how good the show is. It's two-plus hours of nonstop laughs, smiles and intense feelings, with perfect timing, pacing, lighting, costuming and direction, and nary an unintended misstep, though those deliberate ones are knee-slapping hilarious.
Jessica Glass plays food columnist and author Gussie Richardson (Motto: Never Trust a Skinny Chef) with gusto and spunk. She loves food, cooking and longtime live-in boyfriend Walter (a superb — as always — Rand Smith), but we're not sure in what order until the very last moment.
Gussie's wild and crazy agent, Bernie Luskin (Jimmy Chang, a stage veteran making his Studio Theatre debut), has snared her her heart's desire: her very own television cooking show. Big problem: Gussie has serious stage fright that renders her speechless when she faces a camera.
Walter, an amateur hypnotist, says he can cure her. But his cure has unintended consequences that appear to backfire. Gussie's aided and abetted by next-door neighbor Carmen (an adorably zany Sara DelBeato), a flamboyant, dramatic, nearly always drunken Jewish/gypsy Tarot card reader.
These four players work together like eggs in a perfect souffle. Their movements are so natural and smooth that we in the audience almost feel like voyeurs peeping into Gussie and Walter's tiny New York townhouse (thanks, director Ferraro). DelBeato is a marvel — her huuuuge eyes, Bronx accent, over-the-top outfits, kooky hairdos and physical comedy dominating her scenes, though she steps back and lets her fellow actors get their due at just the right moments.
Chang's Bernie takes full advantage of that, with moves that nearly bring down the house. And Glass' Gussie brings us to near tears, both with laughter and with poignancy, her acting range impressing with each utterance. Of course, Tampa Bay's near legendary Smith makes everyone comfortable with his easygoing Walter.
Playwright Jim Brochu's play debuted in 1980, but it has a 21st century sensibility that entertains and satisfies to the very last drop.