Last night, Friday August 10, 2012 the director/playwright ushered me into SPQR's theatre on Western Avenue to see a play described in the press release as Noel Coward's " Private Lives " meets Luigi Pirandello's " Six Characters in Search of an Author ". Most of the seats were deck chairs, and within moments I was offered a Sea Breeze. Sadly, I had to take mine virgin (due to medications) but overall the whole thing made me quite comfortable and look forward to an evening's entertainment.
What follows will include some pontificating. Just a friendly word of warning. For example, I disagree with the above description. Neil Simon's "California Suite" meets Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" seems closer to the mark.
Let us begin with the script. The idea is one charming and potentially fascinating. A middle-aged playwright (Rich Brunner) and his wife (Lisa Temple) live near the beach in Provincetown Massachusetts, trading witticisms and barbs, until invaded by a Mr. Gordon Gordon (Jeff Groff) of the Bloomington Repertory, full of praise for the playwright, desperate to commission a new play. Along the way, he triggers exposure for himself and to the couple of what is really going on in their marriage. Herein lies the best thing about the play, as well as the trap into which both cast and director seem to have fallen. Alas. The story fairly seethes with wit, so much so it accurately portrays the hint it serves as a distraction. From obvious little flicks of the vocabulary to epic/absurd descriptions that take exaggeration almost (mind you only almost) too far. We pretty soon get the idea. This couple has issues. Secrets. A history we'll learn more on before the final curtain.
And all that proves true! Bravo!
Speaking wit remains very tricky. It takes much more than a smooth voice and a lot of energy to make such lines work, especially when they comprise so much of an hour or so. Watching this show last night that became especially clear when any member of the cast said something with genuine passion, real feeling. Both Brunner and Temple did it. Sometimes. Groff did not, not that I noticed. Instead for the most part what we got were line readings, all too often coupled with miming out events described. For the record, this is very nearly NEVER a good idea. That bears repeating. Never. A. Good. Idea.
For us to care about a social mask, we need to see that it is a mask and to get a glimpse of what seethes and boils underneath. In this case--rage, guilt, despair, complacency, deceit and more than a few drops of pure undiluted obsession.
The playwright (Mr. Starritt) came up with a very interesting and fun way to bring all this out into the open, at least as far as the audience is concerned. Our playwright "hero" has had exactly one hit, a Tony-award winning bedroom farce/comedy of manners that has remained a staple of community and dinner theatres ever since--Mind Your Manners. The four characters of that play literally accompany him everywhere, silent but hardly unseen (at least by him). They seem to haunt him in ways not immediately understood. But as time goes by, we do understand. And as we do, the dilemna of this man's life and marriage are laid bare.
Those four, lacking lines, do turn in the best performances in the show--John Paul Evans as Mr. Rosdale, Sarah Ann Vail as Mrs. Rosedale, Christina Giagos as The Maid and Jason T. Gaffney as The Gardner. When they interact with the writer who 'created' them, frankly those are the best moments in the show.
But while the play seems interesting, entertaining and intriguing with a nice share of surprises (these are all high praise) the production itself seems to pull its punch. Frankly little about it can work unless one feels everyone has a great deal at stake emotionally. But the leads spend too much time mugging. When they don't, one is moved. Even touched. You suddenly care. The problem remains how rarely that seems to happen! Mind you, I've seem plenty of productions where it NEVER does! So kudos for some success at the very least.
So it could be better. At its worst Modern Drama (honestly, I don't understand the title--wouldn't Mind Your Manners have worked better?) tries much too hard to be clever but at its best plucks some heart strings. I've seen shows on Broadway that didn't manage as much. But much as the central character is haunted by his characters, I walked away bothered by what could have been.