The Play's the Thing
Also see Bob's review of Christine Ebersole's In Your Dreams
The Play's the Thing is a clever conceit bordering on the line between farce and romantic comedy with some light, deft Pirandellian touches. Like Hamlet, it includes a play within a play designed to serve the protagonists purpose.
Playwrights Turai and Mansky and their young protégé, composer Albert Adam, arrive unannounced at a castle on the Italian Riviera to surprise their leading lady, Ilona. Adam is smitten by and engaged to Ilona whom he naively believes is virginal. Their intention is to celebrate the completion of their operetta with her. However, unbeknownst to them, Ilona's former lover and mentor, the actor Almady, has intruded on Ilona's stay there. The trio overhear them in a compromising moment. Their operetta may be lost as the distraught Albert is ready to tear up his music. In order to save their operetta, Turai will induce Ilona and Almady to pretend that when they were overheard they were actually rehearsing a play. However, in order to accomplish his goal, Turai must first write a play which includes the foolish words of their own creation.
Mark Jacoby's assured and witty performance as Turai is the heart of this play and production. From the start, his Turai is confidently in charge of everyone about him. At the beginning, he instructs his collaborators on how to overcome the difficulties of writing the opening scene of a play by instructing them as to what they will do and say in order to convey the details surrounding their arrival at the castle in a theatrically effective manner. Later on, he will critique their presentation of their ideas for an appropriate second act curtain, providing the actual one himself. Director Joe Discher delightfully provides (partial) curtains for Mansky's and Albert's contributions which Turai waves away. In the third act, Turai hilariously kibitzes and harasses Almady as he plays out the play within the play with Ilona. Jacoby smoothly and effortlessly dominates the proceedings without ever being dislikeable or overbearing. I was reminded of the grace and strength of his magnificent performance in the difficult role of Father in Broadway's Ragtime wherein he made manifest the pained humanity of the clueless Father.
There are two other key comic performances in this production. John Little's portrayal of the self satisfied, officious, super reliable butler Dwornitschek is a marvel of comic timing, a most cheerful antidote to Anthony Hopkin's pathetic Stevens in The Remains of the Day. Author Wodehouse created the prototype with his Jeeves. Robert Gomes comes into his own in the hilarious third act of the play within the play. Forced to play the fool that he is rather than the romantic fellow of his usual stage roles, his Almady bridles at the insults of Turai as he suffers escalating indignity at the hands of Turai.
The graceful and adroit Caralyn Kozlowski scores high marks as Ilona by being the perfect foil for Turai and Almady. Colin McPhillamy (Mansky), Jared Zeus (Albert) and Greg Jackson in a third act comic cameo each lend first rate support.
The set (a room in the castle with a gorgeous view) by Jesse Dreikosen is lovely, richly detailed and cleverly designed so as not to break the budget. The colorful costumes (only Turai's lavender jacket seemed over the top) by Brian Russman well fulfill the need to let us know that the play is set in the 1920s. I'm sure that if Turai (Molnar/Wodehouse) had considered that this play would be on the boards eighty years later, he would have found a another way to inform us.
Molnar modeled his play within a play as a satire on the work of melodramatic French playwright Victorien Sardou, who is largely known today as the author of the play on which Puccini's Tosca is based. The plot was inspired by Molnar's having overheard his third wife, the actress Lily Darvas, seemingly express her love to a German tutor when she was actually reading a German play in order to learn the language. The first production of The Play's the Thing was at the Booth Theatre in Manhattan in this Wodehouse adaptation. How Pirandellian is that!
The Play's the Thing continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m.) through July 1, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600. online www.shakespeareNJ.org.
The Play's The Thing by Ferenc Molnar, adapted by P. G. Wodehouse; directed by Joe Discher