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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Entertainer

Also see Richard's recent review of Cloud Nine

John Osborne has been considered one of the playwrights who changed the face of the English theater with his dramas Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. Following those two cutting edge naturalistic dramas of post war England, he did no other major work. The Aurora Theatre is currently presenting one of its best productions of the current season, The Entertainer, with a superb cast of Bay Area veterans actors. It runs through June 16 and I highly recommend this production for its acting, directing and characterizations of a British dysfunctional family following World War II. Mr. Osborne equates this family with the fall from power of Great Britain in the '50s during the Suez Crisis.

I saw Sir Laurence Olivier play the second rate vaudevillian Archie Rice at the Royale Theatre on Broadway in 1958. It had a very limited run of 97 performances with Joan Plowright playing the daughter Jean Rice and Brenda de Banzie playing Phoebe the wife. Sir Laurence was magnificent in the role of the immoral entertainer. The great classical actor was able to make a changeover into a more naturalistic character role in what was probably one of the greatest performances of his brilliant career. The play was later made into a film with the three actors repeating their roles. The drama continued to have life when it was made into a television play with Jack Lemmon taking over the role of Archie. In 1996 there were two revivals, one in New York and the other in London. Brian Murray played the Archie role at the Classic Stage Company with Jean Stapleton playing the wife, while RSC's actor Michael Pennington played the role on the London stage. Aurora Theatre director Tom Ross has used the 1996 edited version for his 3 hour three act production. His direction of the actors is taunt and right on the mark.

The Entertainer is the story of a family in decline. They all have major problems and they drink a lot of gin to down their problems. College graduate Jean Rice, after breaking off her wedding engagement with her wealthy young fiancé, returns from London to stay with her family who live in a Seaside town. Archie is a second rate music hall song and dance man still performing in the dying art form known as the English Music Hall period. It is on its last legs and he somehow knows it and he really does not care. His stage routines, which he performs on a second stage at the back of the three sided set, contains bad jokes, poor hoofing and mediocre singing. He is completely amoral in everything and he is planning to leave his wife Phoebe and run off with a 20 year old bar maid. Phoebe usually has a glass of gin in her hand and she is a complete booze hound and afraid of everything. She is afraid of being poor because Archie does not bring home any money. She is afraid of Archie's extramarital activities. She is afraid for her son who is fighting in the middle East. Phoebe is one poor soul.

Also in this tragic family is Billy, the grandfather, who was once a famous comedian on the Music Hall circuit. He is a lonely man who has only his memories of his great days in vaudeville when he was a big star. He also misses the old Britain when "persons knew there place" and "there were not a lot of bloody foreigners mucking up the country." He misses the time when the British empire was master of the world.

Archie's other son Frank, a lounge singer, seems to be the bread winner of the family. He was also a conscientious objector to the war and hence was in prison for refusing to serve in the armed services. Needless to say this is one hell of a family. Playwright Osborn is able to show us the linkage of this defeated family, the dying medium of the English music hall, with the terminal decline of England in the '50s. A brilliant stroke of genius in his writing.

There is not one bad performance in this tightly knit play. Charles Dean as Archie adds another gem to his amazing roles of his career over the year. He works his way into the entertainers twisted soul. His scrupulous degenerate ways make a mockery of the image of a head of the household. Yet, despite all of his vices you feel sorry for him.

Phoebe Moyer gives a superlative performance as the booze drinking fearful wife. Her breakdown in the second act is very fervent in her angry raves against everyone. This is an amazing performance. Edward Sarafian once again proves he is one of the Bay Area's best actors playing the role of Billy the grandfather. Mr. Sarafian has a great voice and he was just right as the old grumpy vaudevillian. He dominated many of the scenes. Alex Moggridge recently seen in some ACT performances was very creditable as Frank the lounge singer. Holding all of this together is the distinguished performance of Emily Ackerman as Jean, the "normal" college graduated daughter of Archie. She creates the character of an uptight British woman trying to find her way in post war Britain. There are minor performances by John Sugden and Bob Lieberman who have just one short scene at the end of the production. Both fill the bill adequately.

The Aurora Theatre is a thrust stage with audience sitting on all three sides. The director has a small stage set up against the wall where Archie performs his song and dance numbers to John Addison music hall songs. The living room of the Rice family is at the front of the stage and it works perfectly in this small house. Direction by Tom Ross was right on the mark.

The Entertainer closed June 16. Call 510-843-4822 for tickets or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information about upcoming productions. Michael Frayn's Benefactors opens on July 12 and runs through August 18.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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