Redmon Hunter, a best-selling writer of pulp fiction, has gotten himself into a real jam this time.
Hunter is famed for his ability to make his hard-boiled characters come to life for his readers: They're so real, in fact, that they come to life and take up residence in his apartment while he's writing.
When Hunter publishes a book, the characters pack up and leave the apartment so that they can live in the mind of his readers.
But now, with his wife of 25 years recently dead, he's facing a tough case of writer's block. And that means his characters have just had to settle in for an extended stay in his apartment, where only Hunter can see or hear them.
Then comes a fateful knock on Hunter's door.
That's the set-up for "Too Good to Say Goodbye," a comedy by Jim Gustafson that takes up residence on the Albany Civlc Theater stage for eight performances beginning Friday, March 22.
Director Melissa Mills, an eight-year veteran at ACT, pitched the show to the theater's selection committee for a number of reasons: First, she said, "I tend to like comedy. It's also clean. It's family-friendly."
And, thanks to Hunter's fertile imagination, it boasts a large number of pulpy characters, from a mob boss to a suave spy to a Texas sheriff and his deputy. That means lots of opportunities for ACT veterans to inhabit fun roles, and Mills has encouraged them to go big with the parts; after all, they're all larger-than-life characters to begin with.
The play requires rapid-fire dialogue, and Mills has been working with the cast to speed it up, with success — at a recent rehearsal, the cast managed to knock a full 18 minutes off the running time. "That tells me they really picked up the pace," she said.
But there's a complication: Since only Hunter can hear or see the characters, that means the play often features multiple conversations going on at once. While that's part of the fun, it adds to the complexity — particularly for Jeff McMahon, who plays Hunter. Often, Mills said, Hunter is talking on stage with another character while all of his fictional characters are carrying on as well. "It's like learning your lines out of order," Mills said.
McMahon, a familiar face to mid-valley theatergoers, has been up to the challenge in his first leading role, Mills said: "He's a funny, funny man."
And about that knock on the door: It turns out it comes from Amanda Hawkins (Susan Hobbs), a young literature professor who teaches Hunter's work at the local college. Romance blooms between the two — but can it survive the intrusions from Hunter's fictional characters?
The play includes seven different locations, and one scene in particular — a large party sponsored by the English department at Hawkins' college — presented a blocking challenge for Mills, since it uses all 20 members of the cast: "We are literally using every square inch of the stage," she said.
But there is an advantage to a larger cast, Mills said: For one thing, it helps to increase the amount of word of mouth about the comedy, which can be important for a lesser-known comedy like "Too Good to Say Goodbye."
And it allows for a free flow of ideas between the actors and the director, something that Mills encourages — and which has given the show even more comedic snap.
"We laugh every day," she said.