Seeing a play at Theatre Three is like going to Sunday dinner at the home of an elderly relative. When the old girl feels sharp, she'll whip up a hot homemade meal with all the trimmings. When she's having one of her "spells," you might sit down to a plate of cold, raw potato and undercooked chicken. Everyone at the table will nod politely and not mention the slip-up. She once was a whiz in the kitchen, someone whispers, but she's grown erratic in old age.
The last show at the half-century-old T3 was the homegrown rock musical On the Eve, written and composed by Dallas talent, performed by a huge cast of terrific young singers, actors, dancers and musicians. That production, directed and designed by Jeffrey Schmidt, sprawled to every corner of the theater's boxy interior and spilled out into the halls, as if straining against any barriers to its bold and fanciful ideas. It was a feast, a sizzling buffet of theatrical delights.
And now there is Less than Kind, an old, raw potato dug up from 1944 like a best-forgotten relic and presented in a style that leaves the mold still on it. What could director Jac Alder have seen in this fusty British flop? Written by Sir Terence Rattigan, whose better work includes Separate Tables and The Winslow Boy, Less than Kind has wisely been ignored by American regional theaters for the past 70 years. (T3 is billing its production as "the American premiere" of the original version of the script. Husband-wife acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne did it on Broadway under a different title and toured it to Allied troops during wartime.)
Less than Kind
Less than Kind Continues through March 30 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. (in the Quadrangle). Tickets are $10-$50 at 214-871-3300.
The set-up, based loosely on Hamlet, feels like it's traveling toward farce; it just never arrives. Wealthy government bigwig Sir John Fletcher (played by Paul Taylor) has moved his middle-aged mistress, Olivia Brown (Lisa-Gabrielle Greene), into his fancy London mansion during WWII. As he supervises tank construction, she plans dinner parties and acts the perfect society wife, ordering servants around and finagling ration stamps to keep the larders full. Meanwhile, John's real wife, Diana (Jenna Anderson), is squandering his money betting on horse races. When Olivia's son Michael (Zak Reynolds) returns from Canada, where he's been sitting out the Blitz and finishing school, friction arises among them all. Michael, a budding leftist, hates Sir John's Tory warmongering (he accuses him of selling armaments to Japan and Germany) and somehow convinces mom Olivia that her cohabitation arrangement will scar him for life. Son makes mom move back to their piddly flat, where she cooks powdered-egg omelets and slops around in a chenille robe.
That all takes about 90 minutes to lay out — and ye gods, does every minute tick by like a night in a bunker waiting for the bombing to stop — and then comes the even more boring second act. Sir John, a schemer whose personal interests take precedence above all things, conspires to win back Olivia, make Diana agree to divorce and turn Michael, whom John calls "a little moral gangster with an Oepidus complex," into a money-worshiping young industrialist. He succeeds.
It's a bum-numbing two and a half hours that Alder and his design team have staged on the cheap. It took a few mentions of the "granja" of Sir John's mansion to realize the actors, all affecting dodgy British accents, were saying "grandeur," but from the look of the show, Sir John's decorator was Sir Dempsey of Dumpster. Spindly tables, ugly chairs, cheap tea sets. When Olivia commands Sir John to take a nap on the couch, actor Paul Taylor has to curl up like a shrimp on a ghastly pink settee too small for a dog bed, much less a man.
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We have eyes, Theatre Three; we can see all the corners you cut.
Bad play, terrible staging, but darn it, the actors are giving it all they've got, even if all they have is a rough idea of how to say things British-y. Taylor, a handsome devil, knows how to rock a gray frock coat (costumer Bruce Coleman puts him in one for the entire play, as if Sir John is always en route to a morning wedding at St. Paul's). And Taylor fights with every look and gesture to keep the tone light. His dark eyebrows may be two of the finest, hardest working comedic actors in town.
The sunny face and twinkly eyes of Lisa-Gabrielle Greene as Olivia contrast nicely with the angry pout of Jenna Anderson as the rival for Sir John's affections. Anderson, who resembles the young Angela Lansbury, is a good actress burdened by evil costuming: wrinkled white cotton skirt, short jacket, wobbly heels and ill-constructed hats (one might be a dead white chicken plopped on her scalp).
Reynolds is cute as the son. That's being more than kind.