Get it while it's hot
BY SAMANTHA O'BRIEN

January 5, 2008

Now that The L Word has become so predictable that audiences can create their own bingo or drinking games to accompany the characters’ repetitive behaviors (e.g. take a sip when Bette has control problems, notch off B4 when Jenny goes psycho), it’s clear that the plots have grown somewhat tiresome. For fans in need of a jolt, there’s a good chance you’ll find it at the coffee house in Room for Cream, the live lesbian serial now playing at La MaMa.
     While Showtime’s Sapphic mainstay suffers from a case of taking itself too seriously even when veering into trashy territory, Room for Cream is the kind of self-aware juicy pulp in which a wink seems to chase every line. In the pilot episode, “Welcome to Sappho," which premiered last Saturday, the characters’ problems range from tenderly familiar to comically over-the-top.
     With its soap opera style, the show isn’t exactly groundbreaking material, but its light tone and firm grasp on comedy makes for a highly entertaining 40 minutes. Picture Cheers with lesbians and coffee. Everybody knows everybody’s name – and personal business. Inside the café, we have a few archetypes: the gender studies professor, the punky sprite, the voice-of-reason mother figure, the butch, and the lone, shoulder-shrugging straight woman. Unlike most pilots that try to cover too much ground, Jess Barbagallo’s script introduces everyone smoothly and sets up multiple promising plotlines.
     However, as with any soap, a recap is bound to sound ridiculously complicated and overdramatic. I’ll try to keep it simple: things open with a forbidden love and end in hot pursuit of kidnappers, with some peeping toms, supply-room trysts, and muffins in between. Who knew the Berkshires could be so action-packed?
     Director Brooke O’Harra smartly limits movement when the characters are inside the café. The scenes are propelled by the snappy dialogue and would probably be disrupted by unnecessary action. It doesn’t matter that the actors sit for much of the time: the fantastic one-liners (“Call it ‘youth outreach,’" one character says of her interest in the high school volleyball team) and spot-on references (wondering if someone is straight, or if “she locks herself in her room at night listening to ‘Come to My Window’ on repeat") are legs enough for the scenes to stand on.
     The entire cast shares a knack for comic timing, particularly O’Harra as the scholar, Dr. O’Boyle, and Tina Shepard as the middle-aged patron, Beatrice. O’Harra’s professor timidly shifts in her seat, offering a pipsqueak-pitched analysis of every situation. Her spacey, delayed delivery perfectly offsets the character’s academic façade.
     While O’Boyle and the rest of the characters are more affectionately drawn – with love interests and cute quirks – Beatrice (so far) just has complaints and a colonoscopy appointment. Still, Shepard peppers her lines with just the right amount of huffy tones and acid-tinged punctuations that she makes Beatrice’s behavior a refreshingly bitter counterpoint to the others’ playful banter.
     The live presentation enhances the fun vibe of the show. It’s interesting that both audience and cast should grow more familiar with each other as the series continues (there will be 10 more episodes on a biweekly basis between now and June), rather than the one-way conversation of television. The set furthers this interaction by placing the audience among the actors, seating people at or around the coffee shop where the action takes place. Sometimes, the occasional in-the-way spectator forced the actors to break the fourth wall, which made for unexpected humor.
     Mishaps like these, though amusing, also point to one downside of the light nature of the show. It’s a little messy and could stand to be tightened up a bit. Perhaps this will come as the cast and crew settle into the show as it continues. Either way, I’m excited to see what future episodes will bring. It should be noted that the first show was packed. I’d tell you to go see Room for Cream, but with such a strong chance that will happen again, I don’t want to lose my seat.