POPCORN FALLS (Walnut Street): A disservice to small towns and comedy

Dan Olmstead as Mr. Trundle and Luke Bradt as the teacher in POPCORN FALLS. Photo by Mark Garvin

Popcorn Falls is not the town it used to be! The historic waterfall (with some fictional connection to George Washington) has been dammed up. Tourists aren’t coming. The libraries and schools are underfunded. This is a town forgotten and vulnerable: “full of losers.” When things appear as if they couldn’t get any worse, Mr. Doyle, the CEO of the county, informs the town that it is being shut down and turned into a sewage treatment facility. Through a confusing turn of fraudulent institutional giving, the only way to save Popcorn Falls is to put on a play…in a week!

From there, the town kooks come out of the woodwork and a play is put on that may, in fact, save the town. James Hindman’s Popcorn Falls is also a two-hander, so actors Luke Bradt and Dan Olmstead play all of the townspeople. Waiting for Guffman meets Greater Tuna? Sign me up! Unfortunately, Popcorn Falls fails to capture any of the charm of the small-town comedies that have come before it.

The sophomoric script makes the well-trod premise feel even less essential. Satires of small towns only work when there is a deep and abiding respect for its subjects. Hindman’s script and this production as a whole seems to oscillate between mild bemusement and contempt for Popcorn Falls’s residents, or as they are known there, “Kernels.” These characters are drawn with such a broad brush that they feel more a part of a Disney Channel original movie than an Off-Broadway comedy.

Bradt, who plays the majority of the townsfolk, often goes for superficial stock portrayals of his characters. The exception being a few tender scenes as the single-mom barmaid “Becky.” Olmstead, who spends most of the show as the town’s good-natured mayor fares slightly better. Taken as a whole, Ellie Mooney’s direction feels sloppy and shapeless. Laura Revelt’s charming town hall set is the sole production element that rises above the mediocrity of the whole affair.

America’s small towns are struggling. Late capitalism has rendered many places like Popcorn Falls invisible. These places deserve attention, respect, and thoughtful engagement: all things that can occur in a smart, well-directed comedy. I wish Popcorn Falls brought more to the table.

[Independence Studio on 3, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] February 25-March 29, 2020;

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