Popcorn Falls, a fictional town with a population in the double digits, is supposed to be a sleepy place. But it also is the setting for James Hindman’s play “Popcorn Falls,” which hits like a whirlwind in its current production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
The play — which debuted in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2017, and also has been presented off-Broadway — is loaded with jokes and gags. In Long Branch, Hindman and Tom Souhrada play all the characters: There are about 20 of them, of various ages (from young child to ancient) and both genders, in this 90-minute show.
Hindman and Souhrada switch characters frequently while also making changes to the set to evoke different settings for different scenes; generating whatever sound effects are necessary; and doing things like pretending that a sweater is a cat, and stepping out of character to interact with the audience. They are in constant, almost dizzying motion and, in the show I saw, performed with great precision.
Rose Riccardi, who doubles as director and stage manager, deserves a lot of credit for helping to make all the mayhem run smoothy, and Jessica Parks, who is in charge of scenic design and props, also played a big part, since some of the jokes involve parts of the set moving in unexpected ways.
Hindman’s main role is Ted Trundle, Popcorn Falls’ optimistic new mayor. Souhrada’s is Joe, the town’s “executive custodian” (a kind of do-it-all maintenance man). At different times, both play Becky, Joe’s ex and Ted’s current love interest: Souhrada when she is interacting with Ted, and Hindman, when she is interacting with Joe.
The play’s main plotline, though, involves the residents of Popcorn Falls banding together to save the Upstate New York town (whose dubious claim to fame is that George Washington once had a picnic lunch there), itself. As Ted learns in the play’s first scene, Popcorn Falls is in danger of disappearing entirely if the county’s chief executive, Mr. Doyle (played by Souhrada as a hiss-worthy villain), gets his way and demolishes the downtown area to build a sewage treatment plant.
This all may sound confusing and convoluted in print. And I know that this kind of show, in which a small number of actors portrays a large number of characters, can sometimes be frustratingly hard to follow. But I had absolutely no problem keeping everything straight. Except for Ted, Joe and Becky, all the characters in this play are pretty cartoonish, but that suits the fast pace and the two-actor cast well.
There is some bittersweet emotion in the love story, and in Ted’s desire to start his nearly ruined life over again in this small town. And the play is also, in part, a love letter to the world of theater, since Ted’s plot to thwart Mr. Doyle and save the town revolves around convincing everyone to come together and put on a play.
It’s a desperate, long-shot effort, and getting the eccentric residents of Popcorn Falls to pool their disparate talents and rally behind it is a task akin to herding cats. But the plucky Ted — representing struggling, starry-eyed artists everywhere — perseveres.
Despite its hints of greater meaning, this is mostly a light, cheerfully silly production, more concerned with generating laughs than making big statements. Hindman fills the play with throwaway one-liners, such as when Floyd, the lumberyard owner who lost an arm in a freak accident, says, “Some cuts are on the inside. Those hurt the deepest. The ones on the outside … they just make it really hard to put on a sock.”
In another scene, Mr. Doyle is told that Popcorn Falls residents like to refer to themselves as “kernels.” So when he makes a speech to them, he grimaces as he begins, “Dear kernels of Popcorn …”
And when Ted learns that one of the characters’ name is Mrs. Stepp, he thinks it’s funny “because before you were married, you were Miss Stepp. Like ‘Oh, I just made a misstep.’ ”
“Don’t be so pedestrian,” she responds. “My maiden name was Guided.”
“Popcorn Falls” runs at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 12. Visit njrep.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.