"Triple Espresso" banks on theatergoers yearning for no-holds-barred comedy from a kinder, gentler time.
The CLO Cabaret show has hit on a formula that delivers PG-rated hijinks without seeming childish, owing its format more to vaudeville-style variety shows than musicals.
It's hard to imagine that during its 14 years of traveling to theaters far and wide, "Triple Espresso" has often played houses of more than a few hundred seats. The intimate Cabaret at Theater Square, which it will call home into next year, is sized just right for the cast of three.
"Triple Espresso" unfolds as a reunion of a comedy trio that crashed and burned years earlier because of a misguided "fan dance" routine on "The Mike Douglas Show."
Manic lounge singer/piano player Hugh Butternut (Dane Stauffer) has settled into a gig at the coffeehouse Triple Espresso. We are treated to a few quick-fire Pittsburgh references -- Turtle Creek, Wilmerding, Zelienople -- as a way to localize the shop.
Hugh has invited his former partners to a celebratory show at the coffee shop, much to the chagrin of stoic magician Buzz Maxwell (Christopher Hart). He holds a grudge against over-the-top comedian, language mangler and incorrigible schemer Bobby Bean (Brian Kelly), who persuaded the trio to do an untried routine for that fateful TV appearance.
Their references, music and otherwise, are mostly stuck in the 1970s, when they were still show-biz hopefuls.
The laughs build slowly, as we get to know the characters and their relationships. Mr. Kelly's Bobby gets the showiest and funniest routines, in particular cavorting around the stage and in the audience as an ape. The scene is a flashback to when his buddy Hugh was entered in a piano-playing contest, to be judged by Roddy McDowall, a star in the "Planet of the Apes" movie franchise.
During Hugh's performance, Bobby lumbers about in a dead-on aping of, well, an ape, all the while ignoring Buzz's pleas to stop.
Bobby also brings an audience member onstage during a folksy cowboy song and saddles his guest with sing-along props. The fellow I saw was a reluctant participant who eventually went with the flow, and Mr. Kelly brought him through the act with aplomb.
Mr. Hart's Buzz could be a thankless role, with his anger toward Bobby constantly boiling below the surface. But his wide eyes and pursed lips draw us into his suffering until he can no longer seethe in silence. Mr. Hart, whose hands are his fame -- he was Thing in the "Addams Family" movies -- mixes magic with comic timing. When he's not shooting daggers at Bobby, he makes apparently simple tricks with decks of cards or cups and balls both fun and, well, magical.
As Hugh, Mr. Stauffer mugs through songs and strife, and tries to play mediator for his friends. Just after intermission, he takes requests from the audience -- on the night I was there, he put his spin on Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs," Elton John's "Benny and the Jets" and the Captain & Tenille hit "Muskrat Love," each with equal amounts piano-playing proficiency and silliness.
It's revealed that Hugh had a breakdown and got through it with Buzz's help, while Bobby went on dreaming and scheming. Apologies are not just beside the point, giving the show its heart.
All three participate in a dream-sequence race to the "Chariots of Fire" theme song and the hysterical climax, an approximation of that ill-fated, televised fan dance.
It's visual humor that's flat-out funny, anytime, anywhere.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.