Tuesday, August 22, 2023

All Hail the Comic Muse

Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank in On the Razzle. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

This piece includes reviews of On the Razzle, Blithe Spirit and Village Wooing.

This summer the Shaw Festival has been bowing to the comic spirit. In addition to Shaw’s The Apple Cart and The Playboy of the Western World, which mix serious and humorous elements, the roster has included productions of four comedies from different eras: Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730), performed outdoors in an improvised version – the only one of the quartet I didn’t get to; Shaw’s Village Wooing (1934), this season’s lunchtime one-act; Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941); and Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle (1981). In truth, the last of these can claim connection to several periods. It began in 1835 as a one-act English play by John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent, which the Viennese playwright and actor Johann Nestroy adapted seven years later as Einen Jux will er sich machen (He’s Out for a Fling). Thornton Wilder reworked it for Broadway in 1938 as The Merchant of Yonkers – a failure, despite direction by the legendary Max Reinhardt – and then again in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which altered the story about shop clerks out on the town by inventing the assertive, charismatic title character (played by Ruth Gordon on Broadway) and reconfiguring the play around her. It was filmed the following year with Shirley Booth in the role and featuring three talented young performers early in their careers: Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse. In 1964 The Matchmaker became the musical Hello, Dolly!, which, of course, ran for years. On the Razzle is Stoppard’s rewrite of the Nestroy, not the Wilder, so there’s no Dolly Gallagher Levi dashing around in aid of the young lovers while manipulating her sour-faced client into marrying her rather than the widow he’s after or the fictitious millionairess she’s promised him.

In Craig Hall’s Shaw production, the cast appears to be having such a grand time that their delight infects the audience. The play is a farce embellished with clever wordplay that, Stoppard insists in an introduction to the acting edition, was inspired by Nestroy’s own verbal wit. The punning is outrageous. Zangler (played by the dexterous Ric Reid), who owns a bustling shop on the outskirts of Vienna, has a tendency to turn his sentences inside out. Some of the jokes have the ricochet effect of a Marx Brothers exchange – I often found myself chuckling a sentence or two late, for instance when Kristi Frank, as the junior clerk Christopher (which Stoppard wrote as a pants role for Felicity Kendal), imagines his mother’s pride in learning that her son has been hanging out with the crѐme caramel. The only way to play Stoppard’s lines is very fast, and Hall and his actors comply. Reid is the master at this kind of speed, and Mike Nadajewski, as Christopher’s mentor Weinberl, whom Zangler has promised to make his business partner, is right behind him.

The plot is just as convoluted as the dialogue. Zangler goes to Vienna for the evening to squire a widow named Madame Knorr (Claire Jullien), who runs a dressmaking establishment. A young man named Sonders (Drew Plummer) takes advantage of his absence to tempt Zangler’s timid niece Marie (Lindsay Wu), whom he has been courting over the objections of her uncle, to come out with him. And Weinberl encourages Christopher to close up the shop so they can seek their own adventures in the big city – that is, to go “on the razzle.” Their first stop is Madame Knorr’s design house, where they pose as manikins in her window when Zangler shows up inopportunely, and where, a few minutes later, in a farce set-up that defies explication, Weinberl pretends to be engaged to the proprietor’s friend Frau Fischer (Élodie Gillett), whom he has never met and whose unexpected entrance draws on all his ingenuity. Following intermission, everyone winds up at the ritzy Imperial Gardens Café, Weinberl and Christopher treating the two ladies lavishly though their pocketbooks can ill afford the bill.

Hall has staged all the visual effects Stoppard calls for, like the spring-loaded canisters that carry items on wires between the cashier and the various counters, and thrown in one of his own, a bicycle built for two with Weinberl behind an elevated driver’s wheel and Christopher about four heads lower on a drop seat. (Christina Poddubiuk designed both the set, which tests all the resources of the Royal George stage, and the eye-catching costumes.) Each of the acts opens with a diverting preamble that sets the scene (Zangler’s shop, the café), and the staging includes interior-exterior shifts that make you grin.

A few of the physical bits don’t quite land, and though she tries hard, Frank hasn’t mastered the style that Reid, Nadajewski, Jullien and Gillett are so comfortable with. Hall doesn’t seem to have settled on anything for Julie Lumsden to do as Gertrud, Zangler’s housekeeper (or perhaps she’s one of the shop employees; I never got her job straight) or much to occupy Tara Rosling, who plays Zangler’s sister-in-law, Fraulein Blumenblatt. But Jonathan Tan, who was the pragmatic Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek in Too True to Be Good last season, gives another display of enigmatic cool as Melchior, the latest addition to Zangler’s staff. And another actor I love watching, Patrick Galligan, pulls off a neat trick. In the first act, he has a non-speaking role as a customer in full Scottish regalia. It took me most of act two to figure out that he’d reappeared, completely disguised and burying a distinctive vocal instrument, as a coachman whose erotic obsession with the flanks of his horses translates into a fixation on women with shapely buttocks. A subplot that mates him with Fraulein Blumenblatt’s maid Lisette (Alexandra Gratton) goes flat, but Galligan is hilarious.

Deborah Hay  conducts the seance in Blithe Spirit. (Photo: David Cooper)

Though I’m a Noël Coward fan, I’ve never gone for Blithe Spirit, which I’ve seen repeatedly on stage as well as in the 1945 movie version with Rex Harrison as the novelist who’s haunted by his late first wife and Margaret Rutherford as the medium. (The film is one of the director David Lean’s mistakes, but the 2020 remake with Dan Stevens and Judi Dench is way worse – an embarrassment.) Though it has a generous share of Coward bon mots, somehow they tend to come across as smug, perhaps because the play, which kills off Charles Condomine’s second wife, Ruth, two-thirds of the way through so that he can be chased by not one but two ghosts, is heartless. (The 1964 musical version, High Spirits, is sweeter and more companionable.) Mike Payette’s edition renders the play not as a high comedy but as a farce, and his approach rescues it: a farce doesn’t need a heart. This one is frantic, with Damien Atkins playing Charles like one of those befuddled heroes of daffy 1940s Hollywood ghost comedies like Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers or Fred MacMurray in Murder, He Says. It’s a great idea, and Atkins gets funnier as the play goes on. My watch informed me during the curtain call that I’d been sitting in the Festival Theatre for three hours, but the show felt a good half-hour shorter.

Julia Course, whom I always look forward to seeing, plays Elvira, Charles’s spectral first wife, as a femme fatale; she looks exquisite and she’s wickedly charming. Donna Soares is a razor-sharp Ruth. The tip-top cast also includes David Bradman and Jenny L. Wright as the Condomines’ friends, the Bradmans, who attend the séance that gets the action going and Katherine Gauthier as the spiritually susceptible maid, Edith, who inadvertently enables Elvira’s journey from beyond the grave. (Coward doesn’t bother to explain how she does it.) In the one role that always works, the medium Madame Arcati, Deborah Hay gives an uproarious, inventive performance. Preparing for her trance, she boogies around the stage like a possessed calisthenics instructor and throws herself in a high-pitched musical workout that suggests a parody of an actor’s vocal prep. The costume designer, James Lavoie, has dressed her in the first act in a gold dress covered with black lace and a vermilion vest that sets off her auburn ringlets, with a soft helmet of a hat. Hay even manages to come up with one touching moment, when Arcati is hurt to discover that she was invited to conduct the séance as an object of mockery.

I’m not sure why Lavoie gave the two men on stage in act one such hideous suits – Adkins’s makes him look like an amphibian – but the visuals are certainly striking throughout. Green is the color of the ghost world in this Blithe Spirit: Elvira not only wears lime but her hair and make-up are tinted with it, and Ruth follows suit when she crosses over. Lavoie, who also did the set, has made everyone clash with it except Elvira, but once Charles gets used to having her around he switches to citrusy colors and falls in sync with the décor. I didn’t get it, but the trippy Day-Glo shades are fun, as are the outsize roses we glimpse through the upstage window in act two. (As contemporary productions of three-act plays sometimes do these days, Payette has taken an intermission in the middle of the second act.) There’s also an audio treat: two of the music cues feature the incomparable Jo Stafford, singing first “Haunted Heart” and then “Through the Years.” Stafford is one ghost I would always choose to keep around. 

Donna Soares and Kyle Blair in Village Wooing. (Photo: David Cooper)

Village Wooing is a romantic comedy in which a man and a woman meet on the deck of a cruise ship. She’s on vacation; he’s at work writing the latest in a series of travel books. She provides a continuous distraction that he finds irritating, yet he can’t help getting drawn in. In scene one she’s the aggressive one and he’s hard to get; in scene two he shows up at the village shop where she works and their positions appear to have been reversed by scene three he’s bought the shop. We eventually find out why he was resistant to her at first – his first wife went crazy and then died. Shaw certainly wasn’t averse to putting romance on the stage, but the tone of this play is different from anything else by him that I’ve read or seen: it’s a (somewhat abstracted) situation comedy devoid of his usual irony. But it’s a winning little piece. The director, Selma Dimitrijevic, has staged it with a revolving ensemble of six actors, two of whom play the would-be lovers at each performance while the other four hang around on stage, behaving like eavesdropping Cupids, arranging and rearranging props with the general purpose of removing the obstacles between the woman and the man. At the performance I attended the likable Kyle Blair played opposite Kiera Sangster; she has less skill but her warm, ebullient personality wins you over. So does the play.

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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