Playwright and producer Ronnie Larsen is prolific. Unlike most regional theaters that follow season and subscription models, his commercial model, not unlike Broadway, is much more fluid and flexible.
If tickets aren’t selling, he’ll close a show and move on. When a show is profitable, he extends absolutely as long as possible.
Larsen has the added advantage that he writes nearly all the shows he produces, whipping out entertaining gay-themed comedies one after another. Since Larsen arrived on the scene, Wilton Manors' audiences have flocked to the intimate Foundry theater for titles such as “Happy Ending,” “Shooting Porn,” “3 Card Stud” and “Sauna.”
Sometimes Larsen draws (“loosely,” he insists) on his own sexual escapades for inspiration, as in “Cocksucker: A Love Story” and his latest hit, “Truck Stop Sally’s Sex Party.” Other times he surprises audiences, as in the touching and tuneful musicals “Now & Then” (a collaboration with composer Dennis Manning) and “Come Out, Come Out.”
But “The Actors,” which is also based on Larsen’s experiences and opened locally last weekend, is unlike anything he has ever written or staged. There’s no sex, no nudity, nada, just laughs and a heartfelt personal journey that completely engages audiences from the first scene. And it’s possibly his best work – ever.
“Ronnie” (played by Larsen) is a middle-aged man who mourns the deaths of his parents. The grief has seemingly consumed him, but rather than cope in conventional ways like therapy or medication, he decides to hire actors to portray his parents. Jean (Jeni Hacker) and Clarence (David Kwiat) sign on for a couple of “improvised” scenes in Larsen’s apartment.
Together, they reenact moments from Ronnie’s childhood like birthday parties, pancake breakfasts and bedtime rituals. There are family spats and quiet times, too, as Ronnie simply relishes the presence of his “parents.”
Quickly, however, the roles get blurred as all three begin to look at their contractual relationship as a real family. The laughs keep coming at Ronnie’s expense, as he is forced to accept that families aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re pretty messy and he doesn’t get to filter out only the unpleasant moments. And then there’s the big twist in the plot that really drops the fantasy on its head, but you’ll have to purchase a ticket to find out.
Larsen’s writing is already witty and engaging, but Stuart Meltzer’s direction unquestionably elevates the play and production. When Larsen takes the stage in his own productions, we’re often used to seeing him frolic in wigs and frumpy frocks, aiming for the punchline, but Meltzer pushes the actor to dig deeper into the underlying emotions that inspired his play. The result is a Carbonell Award-worthy performance that resonates with anyone who has lost a parent and certainly touched the full house on opening night.
Likewise, Hacker and Kwiat – both multiple Carbonell winners – offer inspired performances and plenty of onstage chemistry with both their costars and the audience. The ensemble is rounded by Chad Raven and Jerry Seeger, both playing very different incarnations of Ronnie’s brother Jay. Meltzer keeps the pace fast, in keeping with Larsen’s script, and their timing never lags as the story advances at a fast clip.
This production is further accentuated by a gorgeous set by Michael Richman, including a working kitchen with running water. The audience might feel at times like a fly on the wall of Ronnie’s stylish one-bedroom apartment.
Larsen is no stranger on the Carbonell Awards stage – he took home a pre-pandemic trophy for best new work for “Grindr Mom” (and Hacker was the best actress). Look for “The Actors” to be a serious contender for best play next year, as well as acting nods for Larsen, Hacker and Kwiat. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood takes notice and a film or television adaptation follows. “The Actors” is that good.
Ronnie Larsen’s “The Actors,” presented by POW! (Plays of Wilton) and Ronnie Larsen Presents runs through Oct. 2 at the Foundry, 2306 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets start at $35 at RonnieLarsen.com.