Review: ‘Spacebar’ at City Lights is out of this world

With all the great watering holes in the Bay Area, I am assured that none of them compare to a bar that resides in Downtown San Jose, and is simply, out of this world.

That would be “Spacebar,” the spot where decorum is just a seven-letter word. Where men are men, and aliens are nervous.

City Lights Theater Company’s world premiere production of “Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman,” the inventive comedic romp running through June 23rd, features a script by Michael Mitnick that oozes love for the history of American theatre

Kyle Sugarman (Jeremy Helgeson) and Jessica (Adrienne Walters) look toward the future in "Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman, running through June 23rd at City Lights. (Photo by Tasi Alabastro)
Kyle Sugarman (Jeremy Helgeson) and Jessica (Adrienne Walters) look toward the future in “Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman, running through June 23rd at City Lights. (Photo by Tasi Alabastro)

and showcases a dazzling turn from its leading actor.

Kyle Sugarman (a breakout performance by absurdly likeable Jeremy Helgeson) is a young man from Fort Collins, Colorado who loves theatre. I mean, LOVES theatre. He has fond memories of seeing the musical “Annie,” references shows and styles more often than a theatre history professor, and is consumed with those folks he calls “playwriters.”

Being a playwriter is something Kyle takes dead aim to become. And he has a script that eyeballs in the 700-page range, which might be just a hair shorter than anything Tony Kushner puts out on a good day. He believes in his play with all his being, with dreams of having it produced by “Broadway.” And while a response from Broadway offering up a reading is met with massive disappointment from Kyle, it is his love interest Jessica (a charming Adrienne Walters) who encourages him to follow his dreams.

What fuels Kyle’s frustration is at the heart of the play. He desires a big billboard of his play to join the other gargantuan billboards that occupy the Great White Way, right on Broadway and 46th in Manhattan. This billboard is of the utmost importance.

The brilliance of this production is that it is so damn joyous. Director Lisa Mallette certainly has had a blast with her cast, an ensemble group of theatre veterans which flexes some serious South Bay comedy muscle.

While Kyle gleefully describes his play to the audience, the players who act out his work do not shy away from big, broad characterizations worthy of people named Captain Iditarod (A joyous departure from improvisation by Comedysportz San Jose founder Jeff Kramer), the drunken sot Mortimer Pip (venerable man’s man Keith C. Marshall) and Fancy McGee (popular City Lights regular George Psarras).

The show certainly has its share of quirky laughs, and some absolute zingers for lines. Kyle’s presentation of the history of theatre was a personal favorite, describing his father’s reluctance to take his son to see “Annie.” In addition, there are tons of references and theatre inside jokes, from David Mamet and Eugene O’Neill to the constant fascination of a Tom Bosley sighting.

The one issue that tends to take over, especially in the second act, is the length. The show certainly loses some urgency, and bogs down a bit too much in act two.  While there are certainly plenty of loose ends to tie up in the second half, the engagement level wanes here.

Where the play absolutely soars is where it needs to, and that’s in the strength of the title role. Mitnick creates a character that feels so personal and so autobiographical, and in the hands of Helgeson, hits so many harmonic notes. Helgeson showcases that youthful idealism when it’s required, but also brings forth a tenderness and warmth when the script calls for it. While the scenes with he and Walters were not always the most joyous, they were certainly the most effective, and helped shape Kyle’s motivations for the audience immensely.
Mallette’s use of space, assisted by the always solid set designs of Ron Gasparinetti and sharp-as-a-tack lighting by Nick Kumamoto create a brilliant world occupied solidly by the characters. “Spacebar” is certainly a joyous romp with a heart of gold that quenches the thirst for a good laugh.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Lights Theater Company presents “Spacebar: A Broadway Play by Kyle Sugarman”
Written by Michael Mitnick
Directed by Lisa Mallette
The word: Solidly funny romp through outerspace via the mind of idealistic theatre kid Kyle Sugarman
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Through June 23rd
City Lights Theater
529 South Second St., San Jose, CA 95112
Tickets range from $16.95 – $29.95
For tickets, call the City Lights box office at (408) 295-4200 or visit www.cltc.org

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