Monday, April 1, 2019

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense: Slapstick Trio

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I fell for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels when I was twelve or thirteen and a friend who’d succumbed before me passed one onto me. I believe it was Right Ho, Jeeves (published in the U.S. as Brinkley Manor), and I was thoroughly smitten – by the sublimely ridiculous plotting, the cast of caricatures, the distinctive language of the upper-class and upper-middle-class eccentrics, and above all the relationship between Bertie Wooster, the fumbling, cracked-brain young protagonist and his unflappable, endlessly resourceful valet Jeeves. Around the same time I discovered that Wodehouse and Guy Bolton had written the books for a series of Jerome Kern musicals in the late teens and the twenties – the ones that preceded Kern’s ground-breaking collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat – and he became one of my literary heroes.

Robert and David Goodale cottoned onto the Jeeves books (there are eleven, in addition to several collections of short stories) in their twenties and Robert fashioned two of them into one-man shows, the second directed by David. Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, their third adaptation, which Hartford Stage is producing currently, is a three-hander in which Bertie (played by Chandler Williams) relates the story of The Code of the Woosters, the sequel to Right Ho, Jeeves, acting it out with the aid of Jeeves (Arnie Burton) and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s manservant Seppings (Eddie Korbich). The conceit of the play, which has been staged by Sean Foley, is that Jeeves provides the theatrical appendages, like a set that either he or Seppings rotates with the aid of a bicycle, while the two men between them play all the other roles. That is, Perfect Nonsense is a play in the mold of the fantastically successful 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps, where the audience watch the actors shifting madly from one role to another with not only comic pleasure but also the appreciation we’d accord a magician’s sleight of hand or an acrobat’s dexterity.

And it makes for quite an enjoyable evening. The part of Bertie has decidedly less to offer an actor in terms of range and physical finesse than the other two, but Williams has the character’s aristocratic fatuousness and self-satisfied clubbiness down pat. Between them Burton and Korbich play seven or eight characters in addition to the two domestics, including three women. Two, both impersonated by Burton, are formidable: Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia and Stephanie (“Stiffy”) Byng, both of whom blackmail him into stealing the same silver cow creamer, an antique owned by Stiffy’s uncle, Sir Watlyn Bassett, and coveted by Aunt Dahlia’s (offstage) husband Tom. The third female character is Sir Watlyn’s daughter Madeline (impersonated by Jeeves). Her on-again, off-again engagement to Bertie’s best friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (whose fascination with the sex life of newts is one of the narrative’s weirder details) is of particular concern to Bertie, since he can’t abide her and – for reasons laid out more clearly in Right Ho, Jeeves – if she doesn’t wed Gussie then he is her inescapable choice for a bridegroom.

Korbich also gets to play my favorite character in the piece, Roderick Spode, the 7th Earl of Sidcup and the head of a local Fascist organization called the Brown Shorts (Right Ho, Jeeves and The Code of the Woosters were published in 1934 and 1938 respectively). Bertie finds Spode so intimidating that every time they meet Spode seems taller, so in order to convey his presence Seppings attaches himself to a dummy too high to get through a door. In one delirious sequence, Seppings has to play a scene between Spode and Aunt Dahlia, and the results beggar description. One of the elements of this kind of comedy is a bag of staging tricks; another is the actor’s acknowledgement of the challenges of discharging his theatrical responsibility when he’s called upon to devise a way of performing the impossible (like the Spode-Aunt Dahlia interaction). The audience eats it up with a spoon.

The other expert collaborator in this venture is the scenic and costume designer, Alice Power. In order for the show to truly come off, she too has to give the impression that she had the time of her life coming up with ingenious solutions. Not quite everything in the piece works; occasionally an effect is too loud or (like the scene where Bertie almost drops the cow creamer) goes on too long, and then the danger is of exhausting the audience. That’s rarely the case, however. When the lights came up at the end of the evening, a woman behind me said to her husband, “They worked really hard.” Usually that kind of comment is the kiss of death: if you’re commenting on the hard work your admiration is generally obligatory. In Perfect Nonsense if you don’t appreciate the hard work you’ve also missed the joke.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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