Classical Gasbag

Amadeus is a smartly written, clever character piece that spins the life of Mozart into a demented bedtime story as told by the great composer's rival, Antonio Salieri. And, as told by Phoenix Theatre, Amadeus is the longest, dreariest production I've witnessed all season.

Blame it on sluggish direction, or impossible acting, or the fact that John Sankovich, who could have really done something with the role of Salieri, must have been out of town when this unfortunate production was cast. Whatever the reason, this Amadeus is as lively as a dead composer.

Set in 18th-century Vienna, Peter Shaffer's brutally funny play is dependent on two strong actors in the lead. And within minutes, it becomes apparent that television sitcom actor Richard Gilliland, whose Salieri appears in nearly every scene, isn't up to the necessary scenery-chewing or much else in the way of acting. Gilliland's flabby delivery amounts to little more than oration, and his emoting is expressed mostly with a lot of hollering and face-pulling. His unremarkable performance hits a sour note that's sustained throughout with teeny exceptions by cast and crew alike.

Gregory Jaye's gorgeous set a stack of huge, magnificent gilt frames is littered with detritus. This Amadeus is a production in which the actress playing "the best singer of her age" lip-synchs her arias; in which nearly every one of the punch lines falls flat; in which every emotion is as false as the cardboard piano Ben Britain's Mozart is very obviously pretending to play onstage.

Britain has never been so badly miscast as the terrible man-child Mozart. Amadeus must be likable; must gain our sympathy early on in order for the play to work. But Britain's Amadeus is just annoying. He offers only two line readings: a raucous bellow or a lilting falsetto, punctuated by high-pitched giggles. His nonstop farting noises (Mozart found flatulence enormously funny) quickly become a commentary on the production itself.

Some local talent is wasted, notably Wes Martin as an alternately menacing and mirthful naysayer, Rosenberg, and Ken Love as a delightfully dour Baron Van Swieten. The entire supporting cast deserves kudos for holding poses while hambone Gilliland huffs out pages of dialogue, and for sharing the stage with Jennifer Bemis, who indicates Costanza Mozart's dimwittedness by braying every one of her lines phonetically.

Director Philip Taylor contributes long, boring set changes and a lot of static blocking for a dozen men in buckle shoes and powdered wigs, all designed by the indefatigable Manuela Needhammer, who might consider changing her name to Manuela Needtogobacktocostumedesignschool. While her frocks and waistcoats are historically accurate, they're made of cheap fabric and apparently as evidenced by their crumbling state during the show's second performance held together with fabric tape.

I confess: My mind wandered in the second act. I began to imagine other also-ran television actors in other plays about famous historical figures: Tom Wopat as Michelangelo; Antonio Sobato Jr. as Beethoven; Jm J. Bullock as Martha Washington. I was roused by Mozart's noisy (and endless!) death scene, and soon the Salieri in me was screaming, "Die! Die, already!"

He did, eventually. And with its tepid applause, the audience attempted to drown out the sound of Salieri spinning in his grave. The cast bravely took its bows and slunk off the stage, leaving us to marvel at the tedium we'd just endured and to pity poor Mozart, whose life story hit a flat note in this particular corner.