Act of Savagery
Get the hook! The theater season is winding up with a whimper, thanks to Is What It Is Theatre's subpar production of The Curious Savage. On a set dressed with all the flair of a fourth-grade talent show, John Patrick's humdrum comedy is being huffed out by yet another clutch of alumni from the Camelback High Masque and Gavel.
Patrick's fun 1950 show is set in a nuthouse full of patients whose illnesses haven't impaired their sick urge to spew punch lines, however broadly written. Patrick went on to win a Tony for his 1954 play Teahouse of the August Moon, but the original Broadway run of Curious Savage was a disaster that closed in just three weeks, despite a star turn by legend Lillian Gish.
In La Gish's defense, there isn't much to be made of Ethel Savage, a recently widowed millionaire whose stepchildren have had her committed because she wants to donate her riches to charity. The Cloisters is less a snake pit than a clown convention, filled with warmly witty weirdos who protect Ethel from the archetypal meanies after her dough.
In this production, the slight story is unwound by a lot of hammy carrying-on that's more about mugging and memorization than it is about acting. As young Fairy May, Tricia Arnseth is quite clever an opinion apparently shared by the actress, who smirks her way though every one of her lines. At least Arnseth has bothered to learn those lines and speaks them audibly, which can't be said for Alice Bjorkland, whose Mrs. Savage is anything but. Drew Riley spends most of Act One glowering in a corner; fortunately, she occasionally leaves that corner to favor us with her wonderful speaking voice, with which she bellows endless inventories of everything she hates.
There are other pleasant performances, most notably one by Paulina Glider, who offers a perfectly balanced portrayal of a perfectly unbalanced woman whose 5-year-old is a vinyl doll. Chris McGuire brings some charm to Jeffrey, a needy neurotic who's handed some of Patrick's better speeches. And Peter J. Good lives up to his name with a consistently amusing performance as a savant who imagines himself a musician; Good snagged most of the few laughs offered on opening night.
Director Tom Leveen asks his actors to pace the stage before curtain, a conventional device that's disrupted by Leveen's own preshow announcements about turning off cell phones and buying tickets to next year's season. Leveen should be applauded for his hopefulness, but he can't really expect us to want to come back after watching his players stumble over droopy dialogue, much of which they seemed to have forgotten on opening night. Leveen's single notable contribution is also the program's worst: Whenever Mrs. Savage's evil stepchildren enter, they bring with them a jarring bit of prerecorded incidental music that's as unfunny as it is annoying.
Sometime during this, the last show of the regular theater season, Patrick's Mrs. Savage opines that "one has to be wicked at times to get God's attention." This mortal would have settled for something wicked, or even something slightly entertaining, from this unnerving and forgettable production.
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