After a vagabond year, changing location with each production, Phoenix Theatre is celebrating its 75th season in a newly refurbished home. The ample lobby, rest rooms and plush seats make the facility, renovated at a cost of $5 million, an attractive destination for an evening out.
To christen the theatre's new home, executive director Michael D. Mitchell has chosen a madcap farce about theatre by Richard Nelson called An American Comedy. It premiered in 1983 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but has subsequently been neglected.
And with good reason.
I'm sure this comedy about theatre artists trying to be relevant seemed like a charmingly self-deprecating choice to launch the revitalized space. But while Nelson's work has enjoyed the occasional production in regional theatre, this American author has been appreciated most by the British, who have premiäred a number of his plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In New York, Nelson's most faithful champion is the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, which presented his brainy comedy of manners Some Americans Abroad and his pseudohistorical Two Shakespearean Actors, a dramatic depiction of the Astor Place riots. Its cast of 27 almost exceeded its run on Broadway of 29 performances.
Generally, Nelson's work is valued for its intellectual substance and even political passion. Considering how feebly his plots and characters are constructed, however, it is chilling to realize that he turned to playwriting after holding the position of dramaturge at several prestigious institutions, including the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Worthy as his intentions clearly are, this is a playwright who is himself in serious need of guidance.
No clearer example of faulty dramatic construction could be offered than An American Comedy, whose strengths and weaknesses are equally delightful and maddening.
In apparent self-ridicule, Nelson has fashioned a farce about a playwright who refuses to write an ordinary Broadway hit when so many things are wrong with the world. Nelson has set the action aboard an ocean liner in the 1930s and has patterned his writers loosely after the likes of Kaufman and Hart.
A recent convert to Marxism, Max has decided to end his longtime collaboration with his partner George, with whom he has written a number of Broadway successes and who desperately needs a hit to keep up his alimony payments. Max's manic surge of political conscience is also most inconvenient for his agent Joe and his fiance Julie.
"Don't you know what's happening in the world?" agonizes the socially fervent Max. "Yes," cracks his agent, "the Shuberts are opening two comedies this week."
Also affected is the writing team's benefactor, Colonel Face, who has commissioned a new work for the coming season. Having forked over thousands of dollars in advance, he has requested a reading of the new script during the voyage back to New York. Vying for Max's loyalty (and, for a while, it seems, his affections) is Eva Rose, a journalist for the Daily Worker. A collection of wacky stewards and waiters, each eager to offer up his experiences as material for a new play, completes the cast.
In general, the trappings are all in place for the kind of screwball comedy that delighted audiences during the Depression. In the hands of a gifted farceur like Ken Ludwig (whose similar Lend Me a Tenor was hysterical), the premise could have served up the laughs. As it is, Nelson strains for comedy at every turn, bending credibility until the slapstick veers into the nonsensical realm of the Three Stooges.
A sample of dialogue reaching for a joke: "You can't rush art!" exclaims a writer. "Who's talking about art?" snaps the agent. "We're talking about a hit Broadway play!"
Joe is so dim that he seriously tries to get the rights to the Communist Manifesto, while the William Morris Agency's only concern is whether it's a musical.
Nelson is at his worst when pushing the comedy to the physical level. Characters are illogically left in closets against their wills, with no attempt to justify long periods when they might reasonably escape.
Nelson's real talent lies in mining hypocritical behavior for ironic insight. Rebuking George for throwing darts at the poster of his idol Karl Marx, Max complains, "You have no respect for property!"
With a trace of his dramaturgical past peeking through, Nelson has one writer wail: "Why does everyone think he can write a play?" Good question, Nelson. It's not too late to reconsider.
Desperate to find something funny to buoy up the gala opening night, the audience choked out a few strangled laughs, but the effort was palpable.
The pathetic humor cannot be blamed on the very talented cast, led by Nicolas Glaeser as the crass agent. Phoenix's answer to Nathan Lane gleefully mugs his way through the dimwitted dialogue as if he's having the time of his life, and his sense of fun is infectious.
Scott A. Hopkins as George brings a steady conviction to the proceedings that anchors many of the loony situations in a welcome, if tenuous, belief. Richard Trujillo as a stage-struck steward delivers a manic performance that is so over the top it seems almost appropriate, although his physical characterization owes more to the Fonz than anyone from the period.
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Funniest of the lot is Scott Johnson as a great dopey secretary to the Colonel. As Julie and Max, Michele Ludden and Mark Devine are excessive when a dry sense of style might have covered the author's inadequacies. No one could mistake these two for Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward.
By far the most successful element of the evening is the delightful swing-time music, sassily played by a live orchestra led by Tom Wojtas. The music gave the evening some of the champagne bubble the gala event deserved. Along with the music, the most accomplished aspect of the evening was the witty and fluid costumes by Rebecca Y. Powell. She manages to combine such style and humor in the clothes that if you squint your ears, you can almost hear clever repartee.
The staging by Michael D. Mitchell is sometimes excessive, but he tries to keep the pace moving along to disguise the hollow substance of the comedy. Perhaps a director with a subtler touch could have choreographed a production lighter on its feet, but this script would need some major dramaturgical work to rise to the standards that Mitchell set in his dedication speech at the start of the evening.
Still, we must be grateful to have a posh new theatre in the Valley, and a venerable institution to occupy it.