Writing isn’t speaking. A sentence that sparkles on a page may seem pedestrian or simple when delivered as part of a play’s dialogue.
That is an overriding problem in the script sisters Allison and Margaret Engel devised for their play, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” a mild amusement that entertains but fails to take off or pack a punch in a pleasant but single-note production at the Bristol Riverside Theater.
“At Wit’s End” is the name Erma Bombeck gave a syndicated column that earned her kudos as a wry commentator on everyday domesticity as it blossomed to national prominence from its daily launching point in a Dayton, Ohio.
Bombeck used humor to describe the never-ending chores related to keeping a house, feeding a family, rearing children, maintaining a marriage, living in a community, and a dozen other mundane but constant activities that take up a good chunk of many people’s lives. She was also an avid advocate for the never-passed Equal Rights Amendment and served on a panel assembled by President Jimmy Carter to bring women’s issues to light.
Bombeck was not sarcastic or tough in her observations. She preferred the easy, and funny, turn of phrase that put the routine into perspective and revealed her empathy with the ordeals ordinary people face.
Rather than zingers, criticisms, or judgments, Bombeck offers drolly phrased reflections that lead to knowing smiles of recognition more than belly laughs. This leads to good reading but not as much to good listening.
Hearing actress Licia Watson present Bombeck’s keen takes on the commonplace musters some admiration for the late columnist, but it never makes you count Bombeck among the world’s great wits or insightful thinkers.
And though Jennie Eisenhower’s production for Bristol sails on amicably and holds attention, it falls way short of creating a sense that Bombeck was special in her work or that we’re in the company of a remarkable woman.
The Engels keep their script to an hour, a short period as plays go, but a blessing in that “At Wit’s End” takes its bow just as it seems to be running out of fresh things to say or tell us.
Watson has enough charisma to keep the audience engaged, but except for a random joke or bon mot, “At Wit’s End” provides little excitement, or even wisdom.
Moments that impressed most were not verbal, but ones in which Watson masters awkward objects and complicated physical tasks, such as when she collapses an ironing board Bombeck uses for a desk and fits it a tight slot under a bed in one fluid motion. I also liked seeing the portable typewriter on which Bombeck banged out her columns.
Depth may have come from getting into more of Bombeck’s personal life. I don’t believe we even hear her maiden name or more than superficial information about the days before she married Bill Bombeck, whom she met when they were both newspaper reporters. Even her lifelong bout with the kidney disease that ended her life at age 69 musters little emotional effect.
In the long run “At Wit’s End” is tamer than I remember Bombeck’s writing being. It misses the raised eyebrows implicit in Bombeck’s columns and comes off as facile or self-conscious rather than sharp and witty.
One element of the Bristol production that does stand out is Roman Tatarowicz’s realistic yet versatile design of a suburban house. The fireplace area has just the right touch to make the rest of the surroundings seem warm and genuine.
Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, October 7. $40 to $47. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.