A cast member of Triple Espresso.
A cast member of Triple Espresso.

Hard to Swallow

Triple Espresso is like the first few minutes of a dinner-theater production. You know, the part where the emcee comes out and congratulates the people in the audience who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, jokes with a pretty girl, gets impudent with an older couple and asks how many people in the audience are from Minnesota. You grin and clap and put up with it because you've had some food and a couple of drinks, and you know there's singing and dancing to follow. But with Triple Espresso, the introduction doesn't stop. It goes on for over two hours. More joshing. More audience participation. What seem like hours of vapid sing-along. Even Meshuggah Nuns has more of a point than this.

When the creators of Seinfeld decided they could make a good sitcom about nothing, they intended to find the absurdity in small daily events like eating breakfast cereal and running out of toilet paper. Seinfeld's success doesn't mean you can put a slick frame around the thoughts of a trio of apparently not-very-bright young men -- writers Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg -- and call that a production. Actually, it was only when Seinfeld creator Larry David graduated to cable that things got really funny. Curb Your Enthusiasm isn't about nothing. It's about a man who shamelessly acts out every petty, mean-spirited impulse the rest of us have ever had. It deflates the self-delusions and sentimentality of pop culture and tells us things about human nature we might rather not know.

Triple Espresso features three entertainers who meet at a coffeehouse and rehash their many performance failures. Hugh Butternut (J.C. Cutler) plays the piano and sings. Bobby Bean (John Bush) is an actor with a repertoire of comic tics. The initial dourness of Buzz Maxwell (Patrick Albanese) seems to promise some semblance of individuality, but it's a promise that's never fulfilled.


Triple Espresso

Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets

Presented by Denver Center Attractions through October 3, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org

Triple Espresso is chain theater, the dramatic equivalent of Starbucks. It's been shown in nineteen cities and has been running in Minneapolis and San Diego for years. There's a stable of twenty actors trained to take on the three lead roles anywhere. Wherever you see Triple Espresso, you'll see the same show, with identical bright, clean packaging. The publicity materials state rather proudly that it's impossible to describe Triple Espresso, as if that were a plus, a testament to how new and out there the show is. In fact, it's a collection of meaningless bits we've seen a hundred times before, including a faintly unpleasant one where the actors stomp around for Cable Zaire, imitating what the creators apparently imagine African music and dance to be. Even the bits that work -- the magic tricks, which Albanese cleverly debunks the minute he's successfully performed them, and a display of shadow puppets that's pretty funny until it ends with a breathtakingly puerile joke -- succumb to the sogginess of the overall concept.

Each actor has his talent. Cutler is an excellent musician with an interesting array of zany expressions; Bush has the offbeat cartoonish charm of a bouncy rubber baby; Albanese is a skilled magician. I can imagine any one of these guys giving a good performance in a decent play. But for Triple Espresso, their personalities are hidden behind the relentless, high-gloss smiles of professional cruise directors. Even the audience participation is a sham: There's no real interaction. If an audience member shows any sign of being about to improvise or cut up a little, he's swiftly shut down.

This is not a play, because there's no plot or character development; we never wonder what will happen next or hope these people will find success. But it isn't real comedy, either. It has no point of view. It's not satiric. It doesn't surprise, challenge or shock.

Triple Espresso barely meets the standards for Peaberry's decaf.


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