One Play's Too Long, Another Too Slow. Hey, it's the Holidays.
What a shame that Ebenezer Scrooge didn't have a gentleman's gentleman like Jeeves at his side. Scrooge's forced march to personal redemption might not have been necessary, and his earlier years would have been less wasted and considerably more fun.
Jeeves' employer, society gadabout Bertie Wooster, certainly seems to enjoy both his life and his wealth, with none of the attendant nastiness of Charles Dickens' rich old scourge, Scrooge. As one of the idle elite skewered so deftly in 20th-century stories by British-turned-American humorist P.G. Wodehouse, giddy Bertie bounces from dilemma to dilemma, emerging unscathed thanks to subtle guidance by the all-knowing Jeeves.
The Jeeves and Wooster tales, adapted for the stage by Chicago writer-director Mark Richards, have turned into popular holiday fare in regional theaters. Stage West has become a Wodehouse playhouse once again with The Code of the Woosters, the follow-up to last season's hit Right Ho, Jeeves, with Regan Adair and Jim Covault reprising the starring roles as master and manservant.
As for that butler-less Brit who seems to pop up in more places than Old Saint Nick this time of year, Ebenezer Scrooge is keeping a large cast of urchins employed in yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol, this one a musical version at Pocket Sandwich Theatre.
Between the two productions, the script and the actors' English accents are far superior in Stage West's Woosters, a show that overshoots the two-hour comedy rule by a good half-hour but generates enough chuckles to be forgiven. Well, almost.
Director Jerry Russell does present a danderoo cast. Adair, so yummy in handsome rake roles, sounds as if he were born with Bertie's upperest of upper-crust ways with the language. And he's in top form on the funny physical stuff. Bertie's constantly in motion, dashing from room to room at Totleigh Towers, trying to keep his dotty Aunt Dahlia (Nancy Sherrard), best friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (Mark Shum) and gal pal Stephanie "Stiffy" Byng (Emily Scott Banks) from getting in the way of each other or "beetling" into this or that scheme.
The object of contention in The Code of the Woosters is an antique silver cream jug in the shape of a cow. Everyone wants it for one silly reason or another, and it's Bertie's job to make sure the right person has it. Piling problem on problem, Wodehouse keeps a stolen policeman's hat in play too, along with a bathtub full of newts and a visiting fascist named Roderick Spode (Charles Ryan Roach), whose followers are known as "Black Shorts" because "Black Shirts" was already taken. For reasons of writerly flourish, Wodehouse ends every scene in this piece by turning the plot upside-down on the very last line.
Most of the entertainment in Woosters is not in figuring out the author's convoluted plot twists. That's nigh impossible anyway. The big giggles come from watching the characters sputter into high dudgeon and pratfall into low humor simultaneously. The legs-in-the-air ending of Act 1 is pure Marx Brothers mayhem.
If only this production looked as good as it sounds. Costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner—the current "it boy" dressing shows on stages all over Dallas and Fort Worth (he also did Contemporary Theatre's current Santaland Diaries)—are all swank, well-tailored tweeds and tuxes for the men and flouncy 1920s frocks for the ladies. They're fine. It's the set by Covault that's a letdown. He's designed "Totleigh Towers" (where Bertie is a houseguest) to look more like a cheap Bayswater bed-sit than a stately manor. The furniture in the bedroom and drawing room is ugly and so low to the ground that when the ladies sit down, they look as if they're squatting on milking stools.
All the lavish touches in Code of the Woosters are provided by the actors, who have heaps of flair and the ability to act well while intentionally laying hard into the comedy. Adair, offering lots of snippy asides to the audience, gets good support from Covault, whose underplayed Jeeves is mostly absent right up to the climactic scene (the play's biggest flaw). Sherrard, wearing a feathered topknot that makes her look like a giant moth, does a wonderful Margaret Dumont-ish turn as Aunt Dahlia. Shum and Banks portray newt-fancier Gussie and boy-crazy Stiffy as the bug-eyed, brainless cartoons Wodehouse wrote. And there's crackerjack timing between Shum and Adair, playing hot potato with the trickiest lines.
It's all as delicious as tea and crumpets—though the length of the thing makes for a rah-thah marathon tea party.
"If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled," P.G. Wodehouse once wrote. He could have been describing Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens' famously disgruntled Yule-hater, whose happy gruntlement finally is brought about by visits from four ghosts on Christmas Eve.
For the 27th year, Pocket Sandwich Theatre is doing its musical Ebenezer Scrooge, adapted by Laurie Tirmenstein and PST founder Joe Dickinson. This dinner-theater venue specializes in popcorn-throwing comedy-melodramas, so you'd think that one of literature's greatest villains would be a logical target for a barrage of fluffy ammo. Shoot, this late in a Christmas Carol-laden month, even Tiny Tim might deserve a few bushels tossed into his cute little puss.
So what a surprise—and not the oh-goody, present-opening kind—to find that PST has forsworn the corn for this show and chosen to stage its Scrooge as if it were a combination of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard. With carols. The phrase "slow as Christmas" comes to mind as the actors stop talking every few minutes to stand at the edge of the stage and sing 12 or 40 or 67 verses of "Silent Night" and "Ave Maria."
Yes, "Ave Maria" in the theater whose next production is Zombie Dearest.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol faster than PST's cast performs it. There are times when all 24 actors are onstage in their old-timey woolen coats and modern polyester trousers (bad costumes by Jill Hall), and there's absolutely nothing going on. Nobody's talking. Nobody's singing another stanza of "Away in a Manger." They're all just milling about, like commuters waiting for the express train to Yonkers. (With no popcorn to throw, I started wadding up napkins, but my booth-mate stopped me.)
For a lesson in brisk pacing, Ebenezer Scrooge director Jeff Vance would do well to catch Dallas Theater Center's Christmas Carol. That one also boasts the best Scrooge in town in actor Robert Langdon Lloyd. Pocket's Scrooge, David H.M. Lambert, a Wallace Shawn lookalike, wastes so much time aaaactiiiing that he forgets to have any fun. He takes so long getting the words out, it begins to sound as if his Ebenezer suffers from early stages of dementia. Pinter plays have fewer pauses.
And remember when Corky St. Clair did his 'enry 'iggins accent at the end of Waiting for Guffman? Way more authentic than anybody in PST's 'orrible Scrooge.
After three long acts, two long intermissions (for the schlepping of nachos and paying of tabs) and 19 songs, Ebenezer finally awakes from his nightmares and the show limps to a close. And we stumble out more than ready for a long winter's nap.
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