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The Roundabout

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 1, 2017

Carol Starks, Derek Hutchinson, Annie Jackson,
Brian Protheroe, and Richenda Carey
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Not all resurrected and dusted-off plays from yesteryear reveal themselves to be glittering lost diamonds. But sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll find a lovely garnet or topaz among them. Thus it is with J. B. Priestley's seldom-seen 1932 drawing room comedy, The Roundabout, a charming and well-performed work with an undercurrent of social criticism that opened last night as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

The production, by the Cahoots Theatre Company in association with The Other Cheek and Park Theatre, arrives in New York following a successful run in London with all but one of its original cast members in place. This makes for a well-oiled ensemble, which, under Hugh Ross's direction, does a fine job of keeping the lighter-than-air domestic comedy floating stylishly and smoothly for its close to two-and-half-hour running time (including intermission, and with its three acts compressed into two).

Although it is never directly discussed, the global Great Depression that began with a bang a couple of years before the play was written is one of the "undercurrents" that drive the plot. The other is the fascination with Soviet communism for many well-educated upper class young adults, disgusted and seeking an alternative to the constant political tug-of-war between the Labour and Conservative parties.

The Roundabout takes place at the country estate of Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), who is on a downward slide toward financial insolvency thanks to investments that have tanked with the economy. Distraught, but taking it with his noble British stiff upper lip securely in place, he is joined by an assortment of visitors in a whirlwind of activity that suggests a precursor to Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You.

Among the callers are Lady Knightbridge (Richenda Carey), an upper class hustler always on the lookout for an opportunity to make some money; Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks), Lord Kettlewell's lover who refuses to accept that he is trying to break things off with her; and a pair of self-styled revolutionaries, one of whom is his daughter Pamela (Emily Laing), an Oxford student and communist wannabe whom he has not seen in many years. Pamela has decided to pop in with a fellow ideologue, Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley), who is outspoken and rude to all with whom he comes into contact. All of these characters, along with several others, bounce in and out of the picture in what amounts to a parade of comic turns in a play with the barest of plots. Priestly, the playwright, even finds room for a romantic angle that reunites Kettlewell with his long-estranged wife (Lisa Bowerman), finds a beau for Pamela, and gives the sneering Comrade Staggles a taste for the upper class life, fueled by fine brandy.

Throughout it all and taking it all in is "Chuffy" Saunders (a delightful Hugh Sachs), the one guest who actually has been invited. Chuffy remains on the sidelines, having a jolly good time observing and remarking on all the goings-on. He is a self-proclaimed "Edwardian idler" who relishes the role of color commentator; when accused of stirring things up and jumping to conclusions, he agrees wholeheartedly that jumping to conclusions "is the only exercise I get." Chuffy is the keeper of the play's funniest lines, full of devilish good humor. When told, for example, that Hilda Lancicourt is about to descend upon the household, he says with a great sense of glee: "She's probably on her way now, with a little cyanide of potassium in her handbag." It is Chuffy's running annotation, along with the fine-tuned performances by the entire cast, that raises The Roundabout above the ordinary.

Joining the company for its New York run is Emily Laing as Pamela. She replaces Bessie Carter, who is Imelda Staunton's daughter and an up-and-coming actress whose own career is on the rise back home. But Ms. Laing fills the bill quite as well as those who have been with the production all along, and she brings both a sense of charm and twinkle-eyed mischief to the mayhem.

While The Roundabout may not exactly be a newly rediscovered treasure unearthed from the good old days, it provides enough delights to make it well worth the visit. And for fans of J. B. Priestly, whose best known play is probably the mysterious and preachy potboiler An Inspector Calls, this play is a must-see, a surprising, sojourn into the realm of lightweight comedy filled with Oscar Wilde-like witticisms.

The Roundabout
Through May 28
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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