Players Centre in Sarasota misses the mark with ‘Cosi’

From left, Tom Aposporos, Jenny Walker and Olivia Valek star in “Cosi.”
From left, Tom Aposporos, Jenny Walker and Olivia Valek star in “Cosi.” DON DALY PHOTO

It sounds like so much fun. “Cosi,” by prominent Australian playwright Louis Mowra, is a warm-hearted, semi-autobiographical comedy about a young theater director who takes a job putting together a show in a mental institution. The cast is made up of patients, and they insist on staging Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” even though none of them can sing or speak Italian.

The play, and the movie version that features Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths, have garnered some sparkling reviews.

The new production for the Sarasota’s Players Centre for Performing Arts (which until a few weeks ago was called the Players Theatre) isn’t likely to be received as warmly. Despite some excellent performances and some scattered effective moments, the Players staging lacks both laughs and heart.

It’s set in 1971, and the idea is that a director named Lewis, fresh out of college and in need of paid work, comes to the hospital to stage a show that’s meant partly as therapy for the patients. They’re mostly troubled and quirky, not threatening. There’s a beautiful young drug addict, a megalomaniac who fancies himself an expert on the art of theater and a woman obsessed with counting.

Early on, Lewis’ loyalties are torn. He has taken the job strictly for the money, but his girlfriend and his best friend are organizing a massive nationwide protest against the Vietnam War, and he intends to join them. But he comes to value his art more than the anger of political protest.

The laughs are apparently supposed to come through his travails in trying to get the group to work together despite their disparate idiosyncrasies. The emotion is apparently supposed to come through Lewis’ gradually growing affection and respect for his cast members.

Neither comes through in the Players’ production. The characters mostly seem obnoxious rather than endearing. and it’s not much fun to spend two hours with them. Scenes that seem to be designed to be played as fast-paced farce — one in which a power outage causes the cast to fumble around in the dark, and another in which Lewis tries vainly to get the cast to focus just before opening night — are slow and unfunny.

It’s not just the comedy that’s off. In one early scene, the only real dangerous character, a serial arsonist, delivers a chilling monologue about burning his family pets to death. On opening night, that potentially powerful scene, despite a strong delivery by Parker Lawhorne, drew scattered chuckles and even a few belly laughs from the audience.

Somehow, whether the moments are dramatic or comedic, the pace and tone are just off-kilter.

The second act is better than the first, and the play-within-the play toward the end is actually quite charming.

Some of the acting is quite enjoyable, though, especially local stage stalwarts Don Walker and Jenny Aldrich Walker — he plays the pretentious wanna-be artiste, and she is the obsessive counter — and Tom Aposporos as a former lawyer who has become virtually mute. Aposporos delivers the show’s most effective dramatic scene, a moving monologue.

Younger actors who do good work include

Lawhorne as the arsonist and Olivia Valek as Julie, the drug addict.

The performances, and some elements of the script, let you know that “Cosi” has some substance. But the lack of crispness in the Players production makes the show slight and dull.

Details: Through June 26, The Players Centre for Performing Arts, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. 941-365-2494, theplayers.org.

Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear