Nonprofit organizations use trivia as the go-to fundraiser for causes as disparate as battered women to child care facilities to school activities programs to, well, theatres and there are dozens of events almost every week. So, thought the innovative OnSite folks, let’s do a show that incorporates a trivia night. Hence, "The Trivia Job," which is clever, fun and surprisingly moving. Anna Pileggi had her hands full directing this complex operation, and she pulls it off with apparent ease.
When you walk in to the fellowship Hall of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Soulard, you’ll see tables for 10 (or however many happen to sit at yours). You are to give your team a name, 50-50 raffle tickets are offered for sale; beer, wine and soft drinks are available, and you can bring your own snacks. Team up with your own group or take a seat at any available table. Answer sheets are provided for three rounds of trivia, “The Good,” “The Bad,” and “The French.” The questions do conform to those categories, and the show takes place around and between playing them. Dan Rubin has written a script incorporating all this and more, and it’s good. My only quibble with it is that each character has a chance to tell a “personal story” throughout the proceedings, and they tend to be overly long. There may be a logistical reason for it, but they do seem to get a bit repetitive.
We are in a space loaned to the fictional “St. Francis Parish Church” to help the financially strapped congregation survive after extensive tornado damage requires repairs. The trivia night was planned by “The Knitting Ministry,” Maxine (Donna Weinsting), Betsy (aka Betty; Michelle Hand), accident-prone Allison Cross (Ann Marie Mohr) and Allison’s daughter, Patricia Cross (Julia Zasso). The master of ceremonies and question reader was to have been the pastor, but he was hit with a painful case of shingles (of the balls, according to the outspoken Allison) and young associate Father Calvin Truss (Ben Nordstrom) has been drafted to take his place. While we’re waiting for him to arrive, we listen in to the ladies as they tell us what will happen.
The event is just a cover for a heist they’ve been planning for weeks with Maxine as the ringleader (“I have taught you all you need to know”), and the other three going along. The plan is to knock over the Anheuser Busch Credit Union (just a half mile away from where we are) and it’s that specific institution because of a grudge explained by Maxine. Music is also key to timing the robbery—one segment should occupy one hearing of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” for example or “five Sinatras,” referring to the background music. Soon we hear the familiar lyrics, “A long, long time ago. . .”
The women are getting nervous now that the time has arrived, but their leader is full of confidence, or at least bravado. Betsy (called Betty at this point by her friends because of her last name “White”) is a bit dim in the best of circumstances; Allison and Patricia are engaged in a mother-adult daughter battle that most of us know well from one side or both; and Patricia is hung up on Father Cal whom she has been attracted to since she was in grade school. The conflict Is about Allison’s concern that Patricia lives at home and is studying at junior college to become a dental hygienist while her mother wants her to get a “real” (liberal arts) education. She’s worried Patricia won’t like her job, but practical Patricia says that doesn’t matter because one works so that she can enjoy the other parts of her life, including moving out of her parents’ house.
Father Truss arrives at last, running in breathlessly and soon in need of a bathroom. He says he was having drinks with a parish family before he came, but later Maxine shoots holes in that story and provides him with an alibi that becomes a metaphor. It’s a particularly effective piece of writing. The first round is played, and the audience learns that while we are at a fake event, the questions are real and they’re challenging. No cereal here. As Maxine has laid out, the first steps toward executing the plan will come after this round, then part two after the next and the coup de heist during the final round when Patricia will be responsible for creating the illusion that everyone is still at the table. It’s a fine bit of work by Zasso. The plan itself is insane—for example, ferrets are involved—but Maxine explains it so matter of factly and with such authority that it almost sounds plausible.
As the night goes on, all the characters get a turn to tell their stories. Betsy rambles about her name (she doesn’t like being called “Betty”) and tells a couple of jokes, but the focus is on the heartbreak of infertility. “Don’t tell an infertile woman to stop trying,” she tells us. “Unless I’m mistaken, you have to try to make a baby.” She says the only proper response is “That sucks,” and then walk away. She mumbles something about her hormones, but the way the speech is written combined with Hand’s expert delivery makes it special. Allison, in her turn, talks about how the church became the family’s refuge when they first moved to St. Louis and didn’t know anyone. She can’t imagine her life without it.
Maxine nods to MCC and its acceptance of her as a gay woman when she felt unwelcome anywhere else. As she could feel the restrictions lifting from Catholic dogma due to Pope Francis, she decided to rejoin the faith community of her childhood with MCC’s blessing, “Go. Do, they told me.” Weinsting delivers a finely calibrated performance. Patricia talks about her problems with her mother but also alludes strongly to the man she “will probably love for the rest of my life, but can never have.” She uses the imagery of the completion of a crossword puzzle, finding the corner piece, to finish a life.
Father Cal gets more time to talk to us when he’s not in the restroom. He delivers a homily on faith and how we are each called to play our part in the bigger picture (Patricia’s puzzle image fits here too) and that, in the end, nothing is “trivial.” He may have a drinking problem, he has doubts about his calling but never really questions it, and gives us insight into his conflicted soul. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Nordstrom in a straight play, and this performance reminded me of what a fine actor he is.
Nordstrom and all of them are also excellent comedians and you will laugh. A lot. And you’ll try your best to win the prize, gift certificates to Ted Drewes (whose famous frozen custard gets more plugs than a Hans Weimann customer throughout the evening). There are other in-jokes, lots of pop culture references, and if you’re as competitive as my table was (only 4 of us, but we played hard) you might just be able to buy yourself one of Maxine’s beloved marshmallow concretes. I will tell you that Richard Green, Connie Zasso, David Braun and I will be doing just that because we won. Go try your luck and skill and find out if the plan worked out for the Knitting Ministry of St. Francis.
OnSite Theatre specializes in site specific works and has set plays in a museum, bowling alley, Laundromat, and other unusual spaces. Besides appearing in this show, Ann Marie Mohr is co-founder and artistic director of the company.
"The Trivia Job" runs through November 9th. For more information: www.onsitetheatre.org.