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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Incorruptible and
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying


Josh Carpenter and Michael Doherty
Photo by Mark Garvin
Incorruptible is a play that's irreverent in every sense of the word. It's a play about people who treat religion as a business—one where they'll do anything to get ahead. Yet for all its talk of death and deceit, the play never gets too dark; it may be coarse at times, but there's an overall sweetness that makes it enjoyable. The invention in Michael Hollinger's script never lags, and neither does the spirit of the cast in the new production at the Arden Theatre (where Incorruptible had its world premiere in 1996).

Set in 13th century France, Incorruptible is about a monastery that's fallen on hard times: no one comes to pray to the saintly relics there anymore because, as the cynical Brother Martin notes, "our saint hasn't worked a miracle in thirteen years." If the monks don't get a steady source of income soon, says Brother Martin, "we are out of the charity business." Their solution: dig up some bodies from their graveyard and sell the bones, claiming them to be relics. Pretty soon money is rolling in, although that leads to a new series of problems. After all, once you've sold John the Baptist's skull, how do you top yourself?

Hollinger isn't too hard on the monks who set this plan in motion: they really do mean well, even if they have a peculiar (not to mention sinful) way of doing God's work. (As one character says of the monks, "Their ideals are high, it's just their overhead's higher.") And there is some thoughtful discussion of how people sometimes have to compromise their ideals in order to do what's right. But highbrow talk of moral equivocation takes a backseat to the lowbrow, farcical complications of the plot. Hollinger's script has a few too many groaning anachronisms, especially in Michael Doherty's turn as a minstrel who struts like a rock star; but such touches don't do much harm in a play that doesn't take itself very seriously. And the comic set pieces—notably an inspired pantomime routine between Doherty and the feisty Alex Keiper—are what make the show so noteworthy.

Matthew Decker's fast-paced direction allows room for star turns by Doherty and Keiper, as well as by Ian Merrill Peakes as the hard-edged, opportunistic Brother Martin. And James Kronzer's handsome monastery set gives the story some weight.

Incorruptible may be an outrageous, cheeky trifle, but it's done very well. And it's redeemed (so to speak) by an ending in which true love—and true faith—triumphs. And that may be the greatest miracle of all.

Incorruptible runs through June 22, 2014, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $32-$36 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.


Mark Jacoby and Jeremy Morse
Photo by Mark Garvin

About a mile away from the Arden, there's another show playing that's also filled with cynical, backstabbing souls who'll do anything to get ahead. The difference is that they do it all with a song in their hearts. It's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the nearly perfectly constructed musical about a window washer who sets his sights on rising to the top of the business world. The Walnut Street Theatre's production is a snappy little marvel: everyone in the cast looks like they're having a blast, and so does everyone in the audience.

This How to Succeed brims with energy. Casey Hushion's nuanced direction lets even the minor characters, like Ed Romanoff's mailroom lackey, a chance to shine. And Michelle Lynch's choreography is consistently lively—not just in big ensemble numbers like "Brotherhood of Man," but in little moments that help define character traits. Watch the way Jeremy Morse, as the charming antihero J. Pierrepont Finch, leaps impulsively around the stage during "Rosemary." Or the way that Cary Michelle Miller, as the wisecracking secretary Smitty, adds some sparkle to "Been a Long Day" by constantly spinning around her partners. Lisa Zinni's brightly colored costumes and Robert Andrew Kovach's sleek set add to the sense of wit that pervades nearly every element of the production.

Even though How to Succeed won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962, its attitudes about the American workplace now seem dated, to say the least. The men of the World Wide Wicket Company are conniving schemers whose biggest priority is impressing the boss, while the women are all secretaries whose biggest priorities are picking the right husband and the right dress. What makes the show work so well is that it treats its subject and its cartoonish characters with such affection. (Even the bad guy is kind of lovable.) And thanks to Frank Loesser's classic score and a script (by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert) that keeps its tongue in cheek for over two hours, even the most politically correct audience member is unlikely to be offended.

J. Pierrepont Finch is a complex role—driven, but concealing his ambition behind a sweet, boyish smile. He's so single-minded that even after he falls for the similarly determined Rosemary Pilkington, he barely seems to notice she's alive. (It says a lot about Finch that the show's big ballad, "I Believe in You," is a love song that he sings to his reflection in a mirror.) Morse is suitably impish, giving the role the right blend of ruthlessness and innocence. Becky Gulsvig, wearing a Marlo Thomas wig, does a fine job as Rosemary, the show's least-defined character. And there are nice comic turns by Mark Jacoby as the uptight, philandering boss and Amy Bodnar as the office sexpot.

How to Succeed may be hard to take seriously, but it's also hard to resist.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through July 13, 2014, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 - $95, with premium seating available, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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