WEST VALLEY CITY — 36 years ago, Hale Centre Theatre founders Ruth and Nathan Hale penned Bundle of Trouble. One of their namesake theaters staged an updated version in 2001. But after seeing the 2017 production, what compelled the powers that be to dust it off a third time is beyond me. No need to pay royalties, maybe?
The plot concerns a slob named Jeff, played by Eric Jensen, who also directed the play. One day his estranged wife (played by Shannon Ricks) drops their daughter (played by Morgan Renee Thompson) off unannounced on the way to a business trip. Jeff is supposed to take care of the girl, but doesn’t know a thing about kids: his idea of a balanced meal involves pouring Coca-Cola over Life cereal. Yep, men are pretty dumb in this play. And women are tramps constantly throwing their arms around them. Hey, it’s stereotype theatre à la Donald Trump!
Local theatergoers may know Eric Jensen from The Off Broadway Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, where he has been artistic director for decades. The theater is known for its broad, improv-influenced humor and howlingly bad puns. Jensen’s years on stage certainly have made him comfortable improvising and bantering with the audience. But his style of lowbrow, 4th-grade humor (count the butt jokes!) is also often mean-spirited.
On the other end of the spectrum, his young comedic foil Thompson is radiant as daughter Leelee. Despite her tender years, Thompson hit all her marks, spoke her lines well and was appropriately cute as a button. Props and costumes (by Michelle Jensen and Amanda Shaffer) like her BB8 backpack and kitty blanket were nice touches to the character as well. As Hale director Jenny Hohl would say, Thompson was cute as Christmas. I just wish the script had something for her to do. Leelee kind of just shows up, and at another point leaves. Even the destruction of her dad’s computer is done by another kid and not Leelee. That kid is played by William Michael Smith, a similarly talented young actor who displayed appropriate body language, and delivered his lines with clarity and confidence. He and Thompson could have bright futures in live theatre if they so chose.
But oh, those lines. One of the (many) problems with Bundle of Trouble is that characters don’t talk or act like real people. They spout procedural plot points and always say exactly what they’re thinking, leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination. The clunky dialogue between characters is especially painful. While everyone on stage seems to be a fine actor—as is typical at a powerhouse like the Salt Lake County Hale Centre Theatre—the actors generally seem resigned to the script’s inanities. Lines are shouted instead of spoken, and moods, motivations and even entire personalities change from sentence to sentence. The script (updated by Eric Jensen) is also riddled with problems of time. Is the audience really supposed to believe that in 2017 a mother would learn of her daughter’s kidnapping days later in a newspaper, instead of an immediate frantic text, phone call, or Amber alert? And that a computer would randomly ask someone if they want to delete a Very Important File without being prompted first? And by the way, Facebook users don’t have handles like Grandma85. They have actual names.
But what do I know? I’m just a hipster millennial theatre critic. The audience loved the show. Laughs abounded, and some even offered standing ovations. Then again, audiences also loved Paul Blart: Mall Cop to the tune of $138 million at the box office. To each their own.
In seven years of writing for UTBA, I’ve seen some stinkers. I can let bad writing slide in amateur shows, but Hale Centre Theatre, with its untold millions in its annual budget, lavish new theater in Sandy, and ticket prices regularly higher than many fully professional productions in the state, must be held at a higher standard. In a world full of great comedies, Hale’s honchos should know better than to trot out this subpar sitcom. May I suggest Neil Simon or David Ives next time?