My Three Angels
Of course, anyone who knows local theater will immediately insist that Whit Reichert (as the convict Joseph) is perfectly capable of pulling his own weight in a comedybut what they really mean is that he's a charming character actor who's likable under any circumstance, which isn't the same thing at all. We'll make him the Justice Kennedy of the cast: the "swing vote" whose charm sometimes nudges the show into the realm of comedy, most notably when he takes charge of Monsieur Ducotel's sloppy bookkeeping.
Larry Dell is Mr. Ducotel, a worried shopkeeper, and Penney Kols his wife. In the past, both actors have shown glorious strength in dramatic plays. But here it just seems like they're struggling to exhibit extreme weakness and vulnerability, which doesn't seem natural and doesn't read as comedy. It's shocking, the two or three times when they actually pull it off, without going to extremes. But more often their Method training gets in the way, and what should seem merely helpless and awkward ends up looking like awful anguish and torment. Who knows? Maybe they are just too good for the material.
I don't think I've ever seen Dan Mueller on stage before (he's the convict Alfred, here), but he's got good stage-sense, authenticity, and seems likable too. And Garrett Bergfeld, as the convict Jules, projects an affable sort of menace. And because they and Mr. Reichert are each intelligent and experienced, they bring a startling ironic wisdom to a mock-trial scene, playing a judge and two lawyers. I just have a nagging suspicion that it's also meant to be funny.
By contrast, the other four in the cast juggle the quicksilver of comedy with remarkable ease. Emily Baker, as the shopkeeper's daughter, can make you smile just by the way she listens to the other actors with an awkward charm-school grace. And she handles her end of a doomed, old-world romance with a completely fresh kind of attitude: trying to be respectable and rational and ever-hopeful, in spite of all the obvious warning signs. As I go through the list of successful comic performances, I note that each is a fine example of a practiced "outer self" not quite concealing a much more primal inner nature. Any good actor should, theoretically, be able to pull that off. But somehow it's lost on the first five. Either that, or director Elizabeth Helman has decided to go for too much pathos in a play that can't really bear the weight.
Casey Boland, as Ms. Baker's ridiculous love-interest, gives a veritable "master class" in comic style as the squeamish Paul, and the laughs pick up whenever he's there to be menaced by the convicts. Richard Lewis (as a rapacious business "ally") and Teresa Doggett (as a voluble customer who won't pay her tab) also prove themselves indispensible to the evening, throwing the three "angels" into sharp comic focus each time one of these two real villains comes on. But that only happens every ten or twenty minutes or so, in a play that's nearly two-and-a-half hours long.
Through December 18, 2011, at the Saint Louis Actors' Studio, 358 North Boyle (about two blocks north of Lindell Blvd., just east of the New Cathedral). For information visit www.stlas.org or www.ticketmaster.com
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association