With the popularity of Fox's TV show Glee, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a "glee club" traditionally meant an all-male choir (often based at a college) singing witty arrangements of pop and traditional songs, chorus-style (i.e. without choreography). That's the sort of glee club Matthew Freeman shows us in his new one-act play by that name.
This particular glee club consists of a group of grown men in a small town in Vermont who meet weekly to sing under the leadership of pianist Ben. This club has one thing going for it: an excellent new song, actually written by Stephen Spieghts, who plays Ben, which they're preparing to sing for a group of retirees — one of whom is the club's main financial sponsor. So the stakes are high. The problem: Hank (Tom Staggs), the group's star singer and soloist, has just decided to quit drinking, and it turns out he can sing only when drunk.
It's an absurd but potentially amusing premise. As an increasingly angry Ben tries to lead the group through a rehearsal of the song, he's repeatedly interrupted by his own pickiness and the men having various failures. This first scene has a number of funny bits, some earmarks of a zany ensemble piece to come.
But that impulsive energy screeches to a halt once the men discover and start dealing with Hank's not-drinking problem. The play devolves into a couple of modestly funny jokes stretched over much too long a time. There's lots of yelling and cursing, without the development of character that makes such moments anything but annoying. Yes, we're shown that Mark is going through a bitter divorce, Stan is a milquetoast, and Nick has a mean streak, but not to the point that they earn their moments or our sympathy. The only really appealing character is Paul (Steven Burns), an apparent serial killer whose chilling non sequiturs always draw a laugh.
The situation makes little sense; for one thing, who'd stay in a community glee club run by such an angry, bitter man as Ben? For another, he keeps stopping the rehearsal to criticize the men for flaws that we, the audience, can't hear; that's funny (or at least telling) once or twice, but fast loses its power to amuse us or drive the story. The actors do their best with the weak material, but little good results besides some isolated funny lines.
On a positive note, the song, though too long in coming, is delightful when we finally hear it. Half earnest and half silly, it perfectly captures the spirited zaniness the script only hints at, and sends us into the street with a happy tune in our hearts.
Glee Club is presented by Blue Coyote and runs at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, through April 3. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.