Stage for the soul

Pork chops, pistols, chitterlings and a drag queen might give playwright and producer Shelly Garrett’s I’m Doing the Right Thing … With the Wrong Man its campy flair. But it’s his lust for laughs and willingness to take chances that really captivate audiences.

After many years as an actor playing a variety of roles in prime-time TV shows — “The Rockford Files,” “Quincy” and “Chico and the Man,” among others — Garrett’s attention turned to the live theater. And then TV’s attention turned back to him. His first big stage hit, Beauty Shop, was so successful ABC aired a sitcom based on it in August 1990.

I’m Doing the Right Thing … is Garrett’s 14th production and the first in which he takes a leading role — as Marcus Franklin, an NFL quarterback who just signed a $50 million contract. With dollar signs in his eyes and ladies on his mind, the playwright puts himself in the center of a diverse cast that includes an R&B singer, a stand-up comic and a leading lady with no acting experience. That dynamic and the script full of one-liners give the play the feel of an on-stage situation comedy that snaps and crackles with comic energy and spontaneity.

“I love that immediate response,” Garrett said in a phone interview prior to opening night. “My shows are hilarious comedies. They are made to let the audience talk back. They laugh, they holler at the stage. And we get involved with them.

“I enjoy involving the audience in the production and breaking down that barrier. No matter who you are or what city you live in or what color you are, you can come to one of my shows and have a great time.”

Garrett’s loosely structured comedy is a vaudeville mix of moods, spurred by gags, jokes, singing and stand-up comedy. R&B singer David Peaston offers inspirational songs and comedian Buddy Lewis breaks into a stand-up routine during a scene in an upscale nightclub.

I’m Doing the Right Thing … tears through hilarious confrontations between Marcus and his young and beautiful wife, Lexus (Lashan Newhouse), who’s barely keeping a grip on her sanity. She relies on supportive friends to get her through her husband’s egomaniacal moments and freewheeling infidelity.

The loud and proud Sugar (Ann Mendel) has a personality that blares as loudly as her zebra-striped pantsuit. And the unforgettable Cookie (Jerome Andre Shavers), a flamboyant transvestite, runs through the audience in bizarre sequined outfits and a long blond hairpiece between hilarious antics that even have the cast laughing.

But for all its casual meandering and comic excesses, the play hits the hard issues (infidelity, domestic violence and the effects of money on friendship) as hard as Marcus and his mistress hit the Dom Perignon at the club. But it does so with a level of humor that keeps the audience rolling.

“Nobody wants to pay to just see what happens to them in real life,” Garrett said. “It’s important to bring in the comedy relief and have fun, regardless of the subject matter. There are a lot of gospel shows that go into other subject matters, like drugs. I have never done that. I just think it’s important to laugh at ourselves and still to relate to what’s going on up on the stage.”

Garrett manages to create the balance he wants — between levity and seriousness, improvisation and structure — while having fun and getting to the heart and soul of things.

I’m Doing the Right Thing … With the Wrong Man is at Second City (2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Wednesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. through July 28. Call 313-965-2222.

Norene Cashen writes about performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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