Tom Perez never has to go far for source material. The Mobile-based author and playwright just mines the motherlode of Azalea City eccentricities, digging only to about six feet under for his latest offering.
“Rumor runs rampant I’ve written a play that’s a dark comedy, but I like to think of it more as gallows humor,” Perez said. “I started this about two years ago when I wanted to write something about male bonding.”
When it opens at Mobile Theatre Guild (MTG) (14 N. Lafayette St.) on Jan. 17, Perez’s newest satire, “Society Shell III,” ribs both Mobilians and the uninitiated who struggle to understand them.
For the unfamiliar, the fictional crossroads is openly based on Midtown’s Griffith Service Station at the corner of Government and Ann. It’s an impromptu town square, where an eccentric smattering of characters cross paths and fill up on unleaded gas and loaded gossip.
But the retired professionals in this new work aren’t by the pumps out front. They’re gathered around back of the building, holding court in a makeshift, over-the-hill boys’ club. The inspiration sprang from atop Spring Hill, in a long-gone eatery.
“They’re like the guys at the Colonel Dixie coffee club at Old Shell Road and McGregor. They were Old Mobile guys who met every morning for coffee and just hung out there, all buddy-buddy. They met in the restaurant but there were certain tables where nobody else would go sit unless you were invited,” Perez said.
There was one exception to the gender barrier.
“They did let Barbara Ann Outlaw who was [former Mayor] Arthur Outlaw’s sister-in-law meet with them, but she had dated most of them between marriages,” Perez said.
Perez’s fellows are doctors, lawyers and even one-half of a lavender marriage. Oakleigh neighbors tag them the Humpday Happy Hour Club, convening each Wednesday with beer coolers and portable bars among the used tires and batteries.
All nicknamed after bad golf swings — Duff, Shank, Slice and Whiff — they’ve been connected most of their lives.
“They’re typical of any Deep South like Mobile, Charleston and Savannah, that’s got old blood in it. They all went to The University of Alabama and are in various Mardi Gras associations,” Perez said.
Compiling years crumple health. A club member’s ominous medical issue makes him mull the decision to end fate’s cruel hand. Time is short. Mardi Gras looms and his wife needs long-term care only an insurance policy can provide.
“I’ve got to get out of here before Conde Cavaliers, because she gets in the middle of those parades and fights little toddlers for MoonPies and she’s uncontrollable,” Perez quoted the character.
Perez says it isn’t “sadistic,” as the characters make fun of themselves as much as anything else. The script is still peppered with whimsical allusions to Mobile’s intricate social tics.
Into this chummy coterie steps Tiffany Heather Johnson, a Wilcox County transplant pursuing her anthropology doctorate at the University of West Alabama. She sees a dovetail between the club and her dissertation, “Male Bonding in Deep South Tribal Rites.”
“She went to the same high school as Jeff Sessions and Kay Ivey but 40 years later. She’s moved to Mobile, joined the Cottage Hill Baptist Church and says, ‘I’m a Southern belle and a Southern Baptist and proud of both,’” Perez said.
The ingenue tries her hand at secretive surveys, plying the men to obtain DNA samples. Her condescension tips her hand.
“They pick up on it and play along with her all the time to make a fool out of her. It’s an attack on academia. They see an insecurity in her which really blows up in the last act,” Perez said.
Perez has standard director Daniel Mainwaring on hand, but it isn’t produced under his usual South of the Salt Line imprimatur. Proceeds go straight to MTG, a longtime institution navigating choppy financial waters of late.
If the three-act work turns out like his first two plays fresh from sabbatical — 2013’s “Don’t Frack with Society Shell” and 2014’s “When the Saints Go Marching in at Cockroach Hall” — they will need extra seats. He’s hedging bets with the timing.
“Our run starts five days after the college playoff game and we close five days before the Conde Cavaliers,” Perez noted.
Friday and Saturday curtain is 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors, students, military and educators, and available online at mobiletheatreguild.org.
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