The best thing about Counter Attack!, a Stagebridge production now at the Ashby Stage, might be the sheer number of actors it puts onstage--seventeen of them playing sixty roles, by one estimate. Many of those performers, in keeping with the company's mission, are advanced in years, and they all come from a broad range of experience--for some, this is their theatrical debut.
Playwright Joan Holden and director Sharon Lockwood make the most of this mix of backgrounds. The show, about a battle royale between an aging waitress and her young upstart competitor, is set in a Bay Area diner. Part of the local flavor comes from Dan Chumley's sublime and functional design, which is cast from the same mold as Dottie's True Blue Café (at least, before it moved out of the Tenderloin).
But much of the SF feel also comes from the shuffle of diverse customers--photo-snapping tourists, demanding Rastafarians, dieting secretaries, gruff constructions workers, dykes on bikes, and a priest who's writing a screenplay and who recites his action-packed dialogue aloud--who, despite some uneven performances, serve up a recognizable and comical slice of San Francisco life.
Unfortunately, the foreground of this play does not offer similar pleasures. It's not the fault of the leads--Joan Mankin as Marlene, a salt-of-the-earth, patter-spouting career waitress who prefers serving her regulars to spending time with her daughter and grandchild, and Sarah Mitchell, as Courtney, the platform sandal-sporting European (complete with a generic across-the-pond accent) who has her number on Marlene's territory. Both imbue their roles with effective comic bravado, particularly Mitchell. Her Courtney is a space cadet from planet Me. Interrupting orders to answer her cell with a "hi-eee," she easily channels all your past bad waitress experiences.
The problem with Counter Attack! Is with the writing. Holden spends so long making the point that everyone loves Marlene--it's as though the customers have nothing else to talk about besides how perfect their stalwart waitress is--that the stakes never become as high as everyone insists they are. Superfluous back story, involving the intricacies of Marlene's evicting a tenant so her daughter can get an apartment, only further bogs the play down. And in case you couldn't tell from the customers' effusiveness how the play is going to end, guitar music better-suited to a kids' t.v. show and the cast's unmotivated bursts into song are there to help you out.
To see this play is to watch a large ensemble, many of whom might not otherwise get to be on stage, have a blst. That fun, however, does not translate into well-crafted theater.
Counter Attack! continues through Mar. 4 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at MLK), Berkeley. Admission is $18 - $25; (510) 444-4755 or www.stagebridge.org.