New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Laughing Matter: American Premiere of Superior British Comedy

Stuart Fingaret, Philip Mutz, Jerry Durkin and Bradley Mott
The enterprising Centenary Stage Company Artistic Director Carl Wallnau has brought the American premiere of a fascinating and witty 2002 British comedy to his comfortable professional theatre on the campus of Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey. The play, A Laughing Matter, originally commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint Theatre and produced in association with the National Theatre of Great Britain, played at the latter's Lyttelton Theatre in repertory with She Stoops to Conquer, the play whose birth pains it humorously recounts. The same cast performed both plays.

If there were any justice in the world, one would be able to report that all is well at Centenary. Despite some fine individual performances, the precisely honed, crisp, high-style ensemble performance required for an elegant British period comedy is out of the grasp of the company. Allowing that it is not reasonable to expect the company to perform farce with the élan of world class farceurs (in this instance, at the production's only preview performance), the farcical scenes are labored and imprecise.

April de Angelis' play is set in 1747 and 1773. Throughout this period, the English theatre is subject to the whims of the licensing office of the Lord Chamberlain, and all scripts had to be submitted to the censorious Lord. The only two theatres in London to hold licenses were Covent Garden and the Drury Lane, giving them a duopoly over plays in London. The scenes set in the 1747 are interposed in the middle of the play as flashbacks. They depict the situation when the young actor-manager David Garrick first came and then soon became manager of the Drury Lane. Garrick, who was considered the best actor of his era, was quite the ladies man, both before and after his marriage.

The principal action occurs in 1776. Covent Garden has declined to produce 45-year-old Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith's revolutionarily risqué She Stoops to Conquer after dithering with the script for 22 months. The fumbling, socially inept Goldsmith wrote "bad things" about him after Garrick would not produce his first play. He now enlists Samuel Johnson to help him plead the case for his play with Garrick. Garrick, who relies on revivals of Shakespeare, etc., will only produce one new play this season. The Reverend Cumberland has enlisted Lady Kingston, a patron and incipient conquest of Garrick, to importune him to produce his own dubious "weeping comedy", The Fashionable Lover.

A Laughing Matter is chockablock with a rich gallery of characters —writers, actors and actresses, a child actor, a patron, an admirer and a censor -, witty dialogue, and slapstick situations which tend to the "risqué." It is designed for actors to double and even triple in portraying 24 roles. Still, the deployment of only eleven actors in this production makes for a bit of confusion for the audience. The politics and financial realities of running a theatre are seriously explored with wit. The constricting tendency not to risk the production of new plays when it is financially safer to do a revival will likely always persist. The Drury Lane Company is an actor's theatre and the actors have strong opinions all matters concerning their company which they express freely and forcefully. There is even an epilogue informing us of the further events in the lives of Garrick and Goldsmith.

Although her play is fictionalized, de Angelis raises any number of issues which illuminate the state of the English theatre during the 1770s, some of which remain relevant to our theatre today. Likely taken from his actual writings, a couple of the witty definitions offered directly to the audience by Samuel Johnson will illustrate the clever amusement which April de Angelis proffers to us:

Patron —One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly, a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery

Play Reading —An attempt by the artistic management of a theatre to avoid the responsibility of office.

Veteran Chicago actor Bradley Mott handles three roles with aplomb. He lovingly portrays Samuel Johnson as an erudite authority figure with a poker-faced sense of humor; conveys Reverend Cumberland's humorlessness through body language without noticeable alteration of his facial expression; and, as company member Betty Flint, Mott is very amusing. This is especially so when she mentions that it is the custom of the time for men to enact the roles of women. In his principal role, Steven Barron is sure-handed as overly opinionated, heavy drinking older actor Macklin. Andrew Danish is fresh-faced as Sam Cautherly, Garrick's protégé who is seduced by the boring and foolish goodness of a young school teacher Hannah (efficiently played by Diana Cherkas) who manages to insinuate herself among the Drury Lane members with unfortunate results for Goldsmith, Garrick and, in any theatre person's view, Cautherly too.

A cast of 11 performs two dozen roles. This is acceptable to the author, although a slightly larger cast might mitigate some audience confusion. However, the confusion caused by the introduction of the flashback sequences seems closely tied to the script itself.

Diana Cherkas in a quite different second role is lively and enticing as Peg Woffington, sex pot Drury Lane company actress and Garrick mistress, who supplements her meager stage income by being the demimonde mistress of rich men. Becky Engbourg is stylishly on target as the equally attractive, but far more grounded, dependable lead company actress, Mrs. Cibber.

Colin Ryan performs stalwartly as David Garrick. However, Ryan's appearance is too young for the soon to retire Garrick during the principal period covered by the play. He also appears too young to play opposite the actresses playing Mrs. Garrick and Lady Kingston. Stuart Fingeret is too exaggeratedly foolish as Oliver Goldsmith. Fingeret is also far too young and green to be convincing as the 45-year-old Goldsmith. He is not helped by a comic wig which Goldsmith (who does wear fine clothes above his income, even if not very well) would not wear. The mocking of Goldsmith's wig by Garrick is descriptive of the one employed here, but the puckish Garrick makes it clear that his words are mischievous and untrue.

Centenary Stage has earned bragging rights by presenting the American remiere of De Angelis' A Laughing Matter. Local area audiences can and should share in those bragging rights by availing themselves of the opportunity to see it now in their own backyard. Others will likely want to wait until (hopefully) either Lincoln Center Theatre, the Roundabout, the McCarter or their like, get around to it.

A Laughing Matter will continue performances (Thursdays 7:30 PM; Fridays & Saturdays 8 P.M., Sun. 2:30 P.M.) through October 26, 2008 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; on-line: www.centenarystagecompany.org.

A Laughing Matter by April De Angelis; directed by Carl Wallnau

Charles Macklin/ Sir Joshua Reynolds……………Steven J. Barron
Peg Woffington/ Hannah Moore……………………Diana Cherkas
Edmund Burke/ Sam Cautherly, Cross…………….Andrew Danish
Cedric Bounce, Largent……………………………….Jerry Durkin
Mrs. Cibber…………………………….................Becky Engbourg
Oliver Goldsmith, Theo Ryan………………………Stuart Fingeret
Samuel Johnson, Rev. Cumberland, Mrs. Flint………Bradley Mott
James Boswell, Mr. Barry, Duke………………………Philip Mutz
Mrs. Garrick, Mrs. Barry…………………………….Ruth Neaveill
David Garrick…………………………………………..Colin Ryan
Lady Kingston, Mrs. Butlet………………………Colleen Wallnau

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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