A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour

"I know how the story goes," says Angus (Michael A. Corolla), a perpetually hopeful if not always realistic Englishman who spent his childhood watching adventures on the movie screen. "They tell each other deep secrets, and the power relationships begin to change."

Angus is talking to three co-workers with whom he's been stranded on a tiny island called Rampsholme in the Lake District of northern England. What he's also doing is tipping playwright Tim Firth's hand--yes, we've seen this situation before--and setting us up for a surprise amidst the heavy fog on Derwent Lake.

What's least surprising about Neville's Island, a North Texas premiere served up by Fort Worth's Stage West, is how seamlessly these four actors work together. I haven't been able to review every production that Stage West has done, simply because the name of this paper isn't Fort Worth Observer. But one thing I've come to expect from this company is tight ensemble acting, with all the audience perks that accompany it--crack timing, a confident and supple sense of momentum that tightens its hold on us, and actors who negotiate Stage West's theater-in-the-round format with the unsentimental savoir-faire of professional gangsters.

British playwright Tim Firth's award-winning comedy Neville's Island is fairly standard situational theater, with the added bonus that Firth is self-conscious enough to stay one step ahead of his audiences through dagger-sharp dialogue, but not so self-conscious that he takes the dreary American back route of commenting on the formula he's using.

As it happens, this production of Neville's Island is nimble and sure-footed enough to amble across the well-trod terrain of civilized-people-who-revert-to-helpless-savages, yet reteach us the important lesson this parable holds with a minimum of preaching. I suspect Stage West has as much, and probably more, to do with this than the playwright, who's offered up any number of opportunities for a lesser troupe to trivialize his themes.

The play opens as four middle-aged British professionals who work at the same company scramble onto a tiny, fog-blanketed island after their ship has sunk. Neville (Gary Taggart) is the appointed captain of this seafaring quartet, who've agreed to devote one weekend to a team-building "vacation" devised by the firm that employs them. This company has paid for its middle managers to lodge in a posh hotel, then pitted various teams against one another in a boat race toward a final destination mapped out by instructions. The point isn't competition, it's cooperation.

The audience quickly figures out that corporate efforts to force individuals into friendships don't work any better on an obscure, isolated land mass than they do inside an office. Besides perpetual referee Neville, who's in marketing, and painfully sincere Angus, who's a distributor, there's Roy (Jim Covault), the "number cruncher" who's so abstract, he's vaguely threatening--the company gave him a 13-month vacation to accommodate a nervous breakdown from which he emerged as a devout, if overly zealous, Christian.

Detained by treacherous Anglo fog, these three might have perished or prevailed as a trio, but you can believe all parties would have met their fates with a solicitous, "team spirit" smile. Unfortunately, a cynical fourth crew member named Gordon (Jakie Cabe) has been included on this team, and he's eager to play the agitator, pointing up everyone else's faults through his devastating sarcasm, unabashedly serving his own interests in the face of peer pressure, and generally dismantling his employer's agenda when an unexpected emergency turns into the test of employee character the company was only pretending to administer.

Although there's eventually a manic hunt for an unseen predator (foreshadowed by Angus' memory of the homicidal stalker in a horror film called Devil's Island), Neville's Island manages to avoid outright, Lord of the Flies-type depravity by keeping its satirical target steady. In talking about the desperately maintained hypocrisies of "civilization," the playwright keeps his scalpel poised with steady hand over one specific part of the body--corporate culture. At one point, when angry guy Gordon bemoans their shipwrecked status on the cold, wet, mist-blanketed rock, Angus pipes in with: "It's not a crisis, it's a holiday!" The absurdity of corporatespeak echoes nicely in this dank vacuum.

Veteran Stage West actor Jerry Russell directs Tim Firth's script with a generosity that gives space for each of his four actors to shine. I'm usually not a stickler for authentic accents if an actor can maintain a reasonable facsimile, and I'm happy to report that everyone in the cast works their British lilts with a professional consistency.

As the caustic Gordon, Jakie Cabe gets most of the best lines, and he delivers them with a staccato impatience that never looks like grandstanding. (Referring to how the office workers must tiptoe around the subject of Roy's hospitalization, Gordon says: "It'd be easy if we just worked with someone who turned into a werewolf every time we used the copier.") As Neville, Gary Taggart cuts his character with a nice overenthusiasm, reflected in the way his "interpretation" of the sailing instructions provided by the corporation (he thinks he's cracked a code using his astronomical knowledge) gets the foursome lost in the first place. Michael A. Corolla as Angus is the ray of sunshine who periodically blinds everyone with his bungled efforts at aid. And finally, Jim Covault locates both sides of the banal-sinister coin, and even tosses in some poignant line readings about his character's affection for birds, in his Lurch-like turn as the gentle soul who may be a crazed killer.

Neville's Island hints that it has a tragic card up its sleeve, but in the end the four colorful comic bouquets these talented actors flourish are what linger with you. Survival of the fittest has never happened so cleverly before.

Neville's Island runs through July 22. Call (817)


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