Melodramatic take on classic novel is filled with laughs and pratfalls

It’s difficult to walk away from the world premiere of Sin Street Social Club at the Arvada Center without a light step and lingering smile. The well-crafted script by local playwright and artist Jessica Austgen keeps the action humming throughout, and you can’t help but feel that the actors had as much fun as the audience.

Billed as a “restoration comedy,” most of us will equate Sin Street Social Club to a classic melodrama, with exaggerated characters, physical pratfalls, overstaged theatrics and a litany of playful zingers – some of which might make the more shy audience members blush. In keeping with the nature of plays from the Restoration period in the late 1600s, Sin Street Social Club reflects a culture of sexual promiscuity, social maneuvering, and other anti-puritan contrivances in order to delight and shock audiences.

The play is an adaptation of the novel, The Rover, by Aphra Behn and was commissioned by the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities as part of its focus on female playwrights this season. As one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing, Behn broke cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women authors.

Austgen does an admirable job of creating a contemporary, gender-reversing version of the original, including transposing the action from 1666 Naples to 1916 New Orleans and from Carnival to Mardi Gras. She also shifts the narrative to more closely follow the story of Helen, a novice nun who is reluctant about being forced to take her final vows.

Based on the premiere, Sin Street Social Club is on its way to becoming a contemporary classic that stands on its own.

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Polished feel

The playwright worked closely with the Black Box Repertory crew and cast to bring the new play to life, resulting in a well-rounded production that feels polished with smooth staging and paced dialogue. Both stage manager Christine Moore and director Lynne Collins deserve kudos for their attention to detail that is obvious throughout.

The play opens as headstrong Helen visits her two siblings at their departed daddy’s dance hall, The Basin Street Social Club, where she schemes on how to avoid becoming a full-fledged nun. She soon discovers that her overly protective and trigger-happy brother, Pete, is going to lose the club if he doesn’t get Helen and their sister Florie Mae “settled” by the next day to meet the restrictions set in their father’s will. With Helen’s fate set at the Convent (or so he thinks), he is focused on marrying Florie Mae, an ingenuousness nightclub singer, to the local Alderman – who has his own underhanded reasons for wanting to marry the girl.

Florie Mae, however, has her own plans for her future after becoming infatuated with visiting lawyer Belville during a chance encounter on a street car. Sneaking behind her volatile brother’s back, she begins frantically searching to find him. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the smitten Belville arrives on the scene with a couple of friends in tow determined to find his sweet Florie Mae.

Tangled plot

Some of the best physical antics and resulting comedy arise from interactions with Belville and his two well-intentioned but misguided friends: Blunt, a bumbling client from the country and Wilmore, a rakish sea captain. As Belville obsesses over saving his beloved, things become even more entangled when Wilmore becomes equally attracted to the lively Helen as well as Angie B, an aging madam whose recent return to the Crescent City has caused quite a stir.

After a riotous night of romantic rendezvous, mistaken identities, a haphazard kidnapping and multiple fights involving sucker punches, fists and swords, a happy ending ensues — which concludes with the strong-willed Helen taking her destiny into her own hands.

A laugh-out-loud comedy, Sin Street Social Club’s clever script is peppered with single and double entendres and more than a few punny clichés that keeps the audience entertained. However, it’s a long play at two hours and 40 minutes, and the first half begins to flag by the end. Some judicious editing might help keep the energy high (and shorten the bathroom lines at intermission) without hurting the storyline.

The production also has an underlying theme of female empowerment as both Helen and Florie Mae struggle to overcome society’s expectations based on their genders, while madam Angie B wrestles with her advancing age in a profession based on youth and vitality. The deceptively simple set subtly evokes the feel of New Orleans without going over the top, and the staging takes advantage of nearly every inch of available space.

Strong fit for repertory players

Sin Street Social Club is one of the best fits of the season for Arvada’s Black Box repertory players. Jessica Robblee brings a well-honed performance as Helen as she deftly balances the character’s cunning side with a charming naiveté, while Emily Van Fleet delivers a delightful portrayal as the flighty but endearing Florie Mae. Lance Rasmussen brings one of his best performances to the stage as he shines as the meek but determined Belville. Other members who round out the excellent cast include Zachary Andrews as the blustery brother Pete, Abner Genece as bumbling Blunt, Geoffrey Kent as Wilmore, Emma Messenger as Angie B, Regina Fernandez at Lu and Larry Cahn as Tony Trudeau.

As noted, playwright Austgen worked hand-in-hand with the repertory company to bring her play to life and its worth taking the time to read some of the details in the companion guide. It not only provides interesting insight into the history and background of the play and the genre, but also includes an interview with Moore on the challenges and rewards of staging a show for the first time. Artistic Director of Plays and director of Sin Street Social Club Collins also discusses seeking out Austgen to commission her to write the play and delves into their close partnership and the pressures of staging a world premiere.

Sin Street Social Club is presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Company of actors, directors, technical artists and designers. Audiences will see the repertory actors throughout the season in a variety of roles.

The Black Box Theater at Arvada Center also offers a “Talk Back” after performances where members of the ensemble are available for informal discussions about the play.