Theater review: ‘Greetings Friend’ not perfect, but it sure has heart

Karen Howell plays Marybeth Mulaney in Topher Payne’s “Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required,” a world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY / STUDIO 7

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Karen Howell plays Marybeth Mulaney in Topher Payne’s “Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required,” a world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY / STUDIO 7

"Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required," a new comedy by Atlanta playwright Topher Payne, feels like a smashup of "Book of Mormon" and a Disney fairy tale set in an exotic locale.

While the Georgia Ensemble Theatre world premiere is far from the musical-theater raunch that defined Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s parody of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a metaphor-laden tale of clashing cultures that manages to lampoon everything from Jane Fonda workouts to “Moonstruck” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

And it does, after a fashion, resituate Uganda missionaries Elder Price and Elder Cunningham as Rhonda Charles (Brenda Porter) and Marybeth Mulaney (Karen Howell). A pair of Missouri housemates of a certain age, the women long for adventure, romance and escape from the tedium of life after retirement and divorce.

Dismayed by a busted hot-water heater and pirate squirrels who munch from her bird feeders, Rhonda sets up a business to assist elderly people with errands and transportation. And just like that, she gets an email from a vanquished prince (Skye Passmore) in a faraway kingdom.

Seems that Prince Paljor has been imprisoned by a marauding general (Cristian Gonzalez) and his narcissistic wife (Parris Sarter). (You don’t have to stretch too much to see a likeness between the villainous couple and a certain first couple in waiting.)

Telling Rhonda’s daughter (also played by Sarter) that they are off to Branson, the Robin Hood-like avengers book a trip to Zardelgnia, a country known for its neck-tie-manufacturing industry and bottomless sinkhole of trash.

Before the end of the story, they’ll befriend a sweet-natured camel in a yurt (think: Old Yeller with humps), devise a plan to restore justice to the land, make a few jabs at America’s immigration and tax laws, and tie things up in happily-ever-after fashion.

While Payne is a prolific writer of national importance who has now had five world premieres produced at this Roswell playhouse since 2011, "Greetings Friend" is not his strongest work. Jokes are labored, subplots murky. In short, it needs a good editing. And director Shannon Eubanks' cast is a bit uneven, too.

But once you accept the tale’s preposterous premise and silly shenanigans, there’s nothing to be done but sit back and enjoy Payne’s ridiculous word salad.

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Cristian Gonzalez portrays General Mahzuno and Brenda Porter stars as Rhonda Charles in Topher Payne’s “Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required,” a world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY / STUDIO 7

Cristian Gonzalez portrays General Mahzuno and Brenda Porter stars as Rhonda Charles in Topher Payne’s “Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required,” a world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY / STUDIO 7

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Cristian Gonzalez portrays General Mahzuno and Brenda Porter stars as Rhonda Charles in Topher Payne’s “Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required,” a world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY / STUDIO 7

Porter makes for a lovable Rhonda: When she doffs her character’s wigs and senior-citizen demeanor, to assume a disguise and embark on a plot to trick the crooked general, she’s hilarious. Howell, as Marybeth, the acidic diva and counterpart to the sweet-natured Rhonda, is remarkable from the minute she strides on stage and roars, “How much?” (for a new water heater). The scene in which the former HR director gets drunk with the camel Shamala is classic.

While Sarter is good (as both Rhonda’s concerned daughter and the general’s shrill wife), Passmore is a bit one-note as the artistic crown prince. Though the actor is handsome and physically commanding, he lacks charisma and emotional depth. Gonzalez, as the nasty general who slowly melts to the charms of the foreigners, is a pleasure to watch. We feel his character’s journey.

Stacy Melich, alas, gets stuck in the astonishing costume and headdress of the ancient narrator, a wise-old-crone type who speaks in a caricaturish accent and hints at the top of the show how the story will end. (In the smaller part of Tammy the big-haired travel agent, Melich is perfect, however.)

In the end, “Greetings Friend” — delightfully designed by Jamie Bullins (costumes), Emmie Tuttle (costumes) and Kevin Frazier (lighting) — makes a case for following your bliss, doing good in this world and being both helpful and fearless.

Whatever its flaws, you have to admire Payne for his chutzpah and his cleverness. The show zooms from the ordinariness of domestic life to outer reaches of civilization, some mythic place between Outer Mongolia and Kazakhstan, in a heartbeat.

“Greetings Friend” may be a lulu, but it’s all heart. Rhonda and Marybeth end up being heroes to the Zardelgnians. And to us, too.

THEATER REVIEW

“Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required”

Grade: C+

Through Jan. 22. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $26-$35. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org.

Bottom line: A lovable mess.