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Barksdale's Express Season kicks off with a brisk "Queen of Bingo."

A Lean "Queen"

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I checked my watch on my way out of the Barksdale Theatre's first production of the new year, a piece of light comic fluff called "The Queen of Bingo." It read 9:37 p.m. When you subtract intermission and the real-life, time-killing bingo game at the end of the first act, that leaves about an hour of actual play. Is the show fun? Sure. Fulfilling? Hardly. It's not just a matter of brevity. The plot — which follows two sisters through a Tuesday night of gossip and game-playing — is barely there. Though veteran actresses Catherine Shaffner (as younger sister, Babe) and Jolene Carroll (Sis) have a comfortable and congenial chemistry, their material rarely transcends sitcom caliber. Midway through the second act, the play seems poised to explore some interesting territory. But in the end, everything gets wrapped up so tidily that the evening leaves the same saccharin aftertaste as an after-school special. At the play's start, Babe's self-consciousness about her burgeoning weight has kept her away from bingo night at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Mich., for two weeks. At the persistent urging of her sister, she has ventured out but has brought her self-doubting demons with her. In the second act, these demons erupt in scenes that manage to be both hilariously comic and pitiably sad. But almost as soon as Babe's emotional dams break, they are miraculously mended, and all without any true insight into the cause or cure. Credit must be given to director Robert Throckmorton for carefully, almost lovingly, detailing the middle-American bingo-hall experience. The deliberately artless set (designed by Jason Winebarger) adorned with a heap of authentic game paraphernalia gives the show an undeniable verisimilitude. With the help of lighting designer Julia Flenner, Throckmorton even tries to punch up the few dramatic scenes with some mindful lighting work. Unfortunately, playwrights Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy never go far enough in exploring the characters. Sis starts to reveal a darker, obsessive side to her bingo playing, but in a confounding turnabout, her obvious imbalance becomes Babe's salvation. Carroll does a decent job in the role, but she mostly serves as the straight woman in this duo. As Babe, Shaffner excels in delivering the play's best zingers ("Protestants don't know a sin from a rat's ass.") but, when it comes time to show what Babe is really made of, she is maddeningly preoccupied with the bingo game. Robert Albertia is spry and quick on his feet as the priest, Father Mac, but his big scene — the audience-participation bit of bingo — is not any more scintillating than playing the game at your local church would be. While the game of bingo may be a heck of a good time, the game of life is a bit more complicated. "The Queen of Bingo" never quite acknowledges that fact, possibly because the show's brief duration allows minimal time for depth. At one point, Sis declares, "Bingo's not the answer to all the world's problems." However, this play never offers anything more compelling as its ultimate

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