Don't Talk to the Actors, by Tom Dudzick. Directed by Phil Rice. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"None of them wants to be last."
In a studio in Manhattan a group gathers to rehearse a new play prior to its Broadway opening. No one is more excited about this than fledgling playwright Jerry Przpezniak, straight out of Buffalo, NY accompanied by his lovely girlfriend Arlene Wyniarski. What confronts them is a legendary mish-mash situation with over-zealous actors, a stage manager who cannot contain her anger and a director who'd be better off plastering a bagel with a schmear of cream cheese. This simple and straightforward is the premise of Tom Dudzick's play "Don't Talk to the Actors," which is opening the 33rd season of summer theater at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY. The theater refers to this play as a farce, but it really is a satirical jab at the business of show for there are no farcical elements in this production, or in the play.
In fact, Mr. Dudzick's not so subtle rip-off of the 1937 comedy "Room Service" - made into a 1938 Marx Brothers movie, is not even a hot-to-trot comedy. Most of the first act's fifty-three minutes are expository and only marginally humorous. There are moments, naturally, when a laugh comes and we take it. But for the most part the show is setting the stage for a truly funny second act of fifty-eight minutes. With the exception of the entrance of the actor, Curt Logan, played nicely here by John Noble, and the ultimate entrance and scene created by Beatrice Pomeroy, played superbly by Joan Coombs, there is little to laugh at other than the concept of the play written by Jerry P-- which the show we're seeing is about producing.
This play has garnered excellent reviews nation-wide with critics extolling its drop dead humor and constant laughter. That is not in evidence in the local production directed by Phil Rice who is usually reliable when it comes to bringing out the humor. I do not know why other productions have been seen as the laugh-riot this doesn't appear to be and I certainly don't think it's the actors. They are all doing what feels like the proper work.
The second act, however, is much, much funnier. So come for the second act. The characters are outrageous as they deal with over-eager playwrights willing to re-write, over-sexed actors willing to engage in romantic by-play, over-age actresses who play with blackmail and over-English stage managers who live with control issues. Throw them all in a room with an infantile young lady who does cross-stitching for fun and you do have the basis for fine comedy.
Coombs, as noted above, is the star comic of the play, throwing fits, jumping into plot points, singing dirty ditties, she is a delight to watch and listen to as she explores the true depths of a creative soul. Her "co-star" in the play within the play gives Noble an equal opportunity to outperform in a Kevin Kline manner. In fact his performance could easily be that of an aging Kline character, a lothario whose abilities at love-making are verging on the comic, or serio-comic. Noble and Coombs are both adept at the big gesture, the vocal exhileration and the desperate throaty gasp of comic reality. The younger members of the company can learn a lot about this style of playing here and lucky them.
Shannon Paul is a delightful comic relief from the setup and the other levels of comedy as Lucinda Shaw, Broadways most in-demand British stage manager. Her final entrance and the reactions to it from the folks on stage is a comedy gem. As the director from Chicago who cannot believe how expensive everything is in New York City, Toby Wherry is the most low-key member of the company. What he brings to the forefront is the reality of the job his character possesses. His very natural way of acting is a pleasure and an anomaly in what should otherwise be a franctic, high-paced piece.
Ben Katagiri is the playwright whose manic re-writes in act two make him into a comic character at last. He plays well from top to bottom but he is rarely funny except in that one scene. Like Eddie Albert, I am sure, in "Room Service" he is intentionally the man around whom all this nonsense revolves and he holds center with a calm and sedate personality that not even silly lines can destroy. His girl-friend is played by Morgan Troia who has stage-fainting down pat. She is not as funny as her character should be, but again there is that sense of reality not looked for in a farcical situation. As directed I would have to say she does very well by her part.
Director Phil Rice may well have struggled against the comedy in order to present a very honest picture of what it is like to direct a new play for the first time. If so he is very successful with this production. However, watching the play is almost like seeing a double-feature in some RKO theater. We have the serious one first and the funny one afterward. Nice idea, but it doesn't really work here. Especially when publicity has suggested a farce (we knew it wasn't one as we entered the theater and the set had only one door - good farce requires five doors) the anticipation is outrageous comedy and belly-laughs at the timing of entrances and exits. This play is definitely not that.
What it is, though, is a decent evening of theater, moderately amusing and so very reminiscent of earlier works. Even with the delicious Joan Coombs clowning around as an aging sexpot this show is less than it could have been and yet almost just right for a warm evening in early summer.
Morgan Troia, Ben Katagiri, Shannon Paul; photo: provided
John Noble, Morgan Troia, Ben Katagiri; photo: provided
Joan Coombs, Ben Katagiri, Toby Wherry; photo: provided
Don't Talk to the Actors plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through July 3. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.