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"Don't go telling your mother about this; she doesn't understand business."
"My family means more to me than all the money in the world."
"We were rich before we hit the Lotto; we just didn't know it."

As that dialogue shows, Cliff Roquemore's Lotto: Experience the Dream comes straight from TV's situation comedy land. Though The Ensemble Theatre mounts the show with professionalism, the company sure is taking it easy with its choice of texts. Such current references as rap music and 900 numbers aside, the audience experiences a time warp watching the proceedings, as if they're part of a studio audience at a taping of The Jeffersons crossed with Good Times. Whether you should put on your theater duds for this, or stay home and watch reruns, depends on how much of a thrill you get from seeing real live actors.

Though Roquemore has extensive stage, screen and television credits, he didn't flex his artistic muscles with Lotto. The Bensons are a working-class black family. Horace is a longtime water-main worker who's been passed over for a promotion. He's the type of family man who has his own chair and reaches for his belt when his kids act up. His elder son, Junebug, has moved back home because, although he's always "onto something, something big," nothing ever works out for him. One running gag concerns how Junebug told his father he'd only be returning home for a minute; Horace's flabbergasted response is, "What kind of watch you wearing, boy?" Spike, the younger son, sings a different tune: he's 18 and a wannabe rapster. The middle child is daughter Nett, a crusading college student who brings home a white boyfriend. When asked about him, Horace goes, "All right? No, he's all white." The person who steadies them all is, of course, the mother, Pearline, who dispenses wisdom and sugar in equal proportions. For quick comic relief there's also Aunt Mildred: she's blind, crippled and always hungry.

She also plays the lottery, which gives Horace a chance to note that she'll hit a winner "when Ray Charles gets a driver's license." Nevertheless, Horace buys a ticket for her one day and they win $10 million. What happens when the family is able to afford what Horace calls "Don Pepperoni" by the case? The following lines of dialogue are all you need to know: "We don't do anything as a family anymore." "We don't need to be plotting and scheming. We need to be loving and caring and sharing." "Buying that ticket was the worst mistake I ever made."

The best decision Ensemble director Eileen Morris makes is to play up the type of broad physical comedy that typifies TV fluff. So the men of the house get embarrassed when Pearline makes them hug. They come up lame when asked, as they frequently are, to tote Aunt Mildred up or down the staircase in her wheelchair. When Nett's boyfriend is introduced, Spike is disgusted by his "unbrotherly" handshake, Junebug takes on a generic Wonderbread voice and Horace looks like he's seen a ghost. (Roquemore pointedly names the boyfriend Seth Goldberg; tastefully, Morris doesn't dwell on this.) Caricatured insanity ensues when nobody can find the Lotto ticket.

Of the largely adept cast, Michael Washington, as Horace, shines. Always grousing about something, he sputters his characteristic "What?" like someone who's blown up one too many balloons. But inside the sourpuss is a sweetheart. Alice M. Gatling solidly delivers Pearline's frequent sermons to "celebrate our good life together." BeBe Wilson uses her booming voice to humorous effect as Aunt Mildred, Tezra Bryant's Nett is charmingly spirited and J.D. Hawkins does fine when he pouts as Junebug. Adrian Porter enunciates too well and emits too much goodness for Spike, even with a backward baseball cap hiding a colorful "hood" do that looks like batches of tiny radio circuits. The supporting cast doesn't help things, but they don't hurt them, either.

"Boy, it's been some evening," remarks Nett's boyfriend at one point. "The Cosby Show has never been like this." Exactly. It was a first-rate sitcom.

Lotto: Experience the Dream plays through April 23 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.


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