Unfairly, the word "amateur" is usually a pejorative term. The literal definition is "one who practices any art, study or sport for pleasure and not for money."

Unfortunately, "amateur" also can imply a lack of skill or finish, and such is the case with Theater Works' current production of John Patrick's chestnut The Curious Savage. What Mrs. Savage says in the play might well apply to this troupe, usually one of the outstanding amateur companies in the Valley: "No one's going to compare you to a professional."

The Curious Savage, written in 1950, is a zany comedy in the manner of You Can't Take It With You. It contains a menagerie of misfits whose bizarre behavior is meant to be both lovable and hilarious.

I had the good fortune to serve on a panel with John Patrick in 1988, and he was one of the funniest people I have ever heard utter a witticism. Best known as the author of Teahouse of the August Moon, which won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics' and Tony awards, he is also the author of the touching The Hasty Heart.

The Curious Savage opens in the comfortable living room of a sanatorium, where we meet a group of unusual but perfectly charming people. There is a plain adolescent girl named Fairy May, who (unlike many of us) must be told she is loved several times a day in order to survive. There is an obese statistician named Hannibal whose passion is to play the violin, although the noise he arouses would wake the unresurrected.

There is a motherly woman named Florence, who carries with her a dummy she nurtures with affection. There is Jeffrey, a pilot during World War II who has lost his entire squadron, and who, in self-blame, must cover his left cheek to hide a nonexistent scar. And there is Mr. Paddy, a painter who paints endless seascapes without ever having seen the sea, and who hasn't spoken in five years, since his wife told him to shut up.

Into this pathetic collection of human detritus is introduced Elizabeth Savage, whose enormously wealthy husband has recently died, leaving her more than $100 million in bonds. She wants to use the inheritance for frivolous things like sending schoolchildren around the world "while there is still a world to be around." She also has bankrolled a revival of Macbeth in order to play one of the witches, and was greeted with this review: "The production exhibits a tenacious mediocrity, unhampered by taste." The plot of The Curious Savage centers on three ungrateful stepchildren who have been deprived of their father's estate, and who have committed Mrs. Savage to the care of the very reliable Dr. Emmett. One of them is a judge in Atlanta, one a playgirl and the third a Republican congresswoman in Washington, D.C. Understandably, this trio of villains (with improbably thick drawls) wants to know what their stepmother has done with the money. Collectively, they are as unsavory a group as could be imagined outside the current House of Representatives. Asked why her constituents keep reelecting her stepdaughter to Congress, Elizabeth replies, "It's the only way they can keep her out of the state." The structural scheme of the play is to leisurely introduce a large cast with laughable tics and let the consequences pay off in a rollicking finale. Once you've paid your dues through the first two acts, the last scene does deliver comic fulfillment.

After Mrs. Savage sends her stepchildren off on wild-goose chases, the judge is injured by a collapsing chimney, the congresswoman is arrested under a White House petunia bush and the playgirl is arrested invading a museum. Finally forced to reveal her hiding place for the bonds, Elizabeth is saved by an inevitable intervention that sends the final scene into a dizzying display of comic ingenuity and a satisfying resolution.

The huge cast is maddeningly uneven. The three children are played with the subtlety of the witches from Mrs. Savage's flop. The psychotic denizens of the sanatorium are played with an exaggeration that chokes the laughter in our throat. Only Scott Morrison is able to move us with his simple and touching circumstances.

Brenda Brown keeps her characterization of Dr. Emmett sufficiently grounded to provide a welcome relief to the cute portrayals of the inmates, but only Maureen Lombardo as Mrs. Savage truly triumphs over the cornucopia of overacting. She gives a wonderful, affectionate center to the play that allows us to bear the old-fashioned dramaturgy with equanimity.

Director Ron Hunting has staged the play with unmatched ineptitude, making it a low point of the Phoenix season. It is all the actors can do to keep from bumping into each other. He introduces each scene with a wash of color on two vacant screens, then follows that "effect" with indecipherable slide projections. The end of each act introduces a forced tableau that lingers far past the audience's will to applaud. At the conclusion, he has staged the worst curtain call I have seen in 35 years of theatregoing. Perhaps he has taken too literally the line in the play that opines, "Freedom is the right to make the wrong choices."--Marshall W. Mason

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Marshall W. Mason