The Play’s the Thing

This review is a special dispatch from Corvallis, Oregon, where Anna caught a play while on vacation:

How does one begin a play? It’s possible to start the action in medias res, but then how will the audience know who is who and what they want? P.G. Wodehouse solves this problem by making it the explicit subject of the first act of his comedy, The Play’s the Thing. As the stage lights come up, it is Sandor Turai, a well-renowned playwright who puzzles over this dramaturgical question. For his part, Sandor (Robert Hirsch) eventually decides that the best way to begin a play is to have the characters introduce themselves to the audience directly. To illustrate his point, he has his traveling companions Mansky (William Campbell) and Albert Adam (Andrew Beck) introduce themselves as if before an audience. And so the audience of The Play’s the Thing quickly and efficiently learns that Mansky is Sandor’s collaborator, that Adam is their composer, and that the three have recently arrived at a count’s castle in order to stage a surprise reunion with their prima donna and Adam’s fiancé, the beautiful Ilona (Amaya Egusquiza). Things quickly go awry, however, when the three overhear Ilona flirting with an old flame, the blustering dramatic actor Almady (Michael Braibish).

Sandor quickly takes it upon himself to find a way to resolve the rift between Adam and Ilona. Hirsh, who also directs the production, does a fine job in this role by playing Sandor with equal parts amused investment and confident detachment. His understated banter with Campbell’s Mansky is often delightful to watch and garners some of the production’s most well-earned laughs. Egusquiza and Braibish have the difficult task of playing actors, and bad ones at that. Both carry off this difficult task with varying degrees of success. At times they are both hilarious, particularly when Sandor’s plans push their respective characters to farcical extremes. This hilarity might have been more pronounced, however, if the contours of these characters had been more sharply drawn in the first act. For example, it’s unclear how Ilona feels about either Adam or Almady, which lessens the comedic impact of her ironic winks and subterfuge.

Barbara Berge steals the show with her portrayal of Mell, the count’s secretary in charge of scheduling and managing entertainment at the castle. Mell’s enthusiasm and commitment is at times laughably misplaced and Berge’s full commitment to the role comes across in her over-the-top physical comedy and exaggerated lisp. Leslie Murray is less effective as Dwornitschek the butler, who she affects with a kind of knowing competence reminiscent of Jeeves the valet for whom Wodehouse is so famous. Unfortunately, thus affection tends to fall flat largely because Sandor has little need of such an attendant given that he seems at all times completely on top of his game. As Sandor’s carefully planned dramatic intrigues unfold in the second act, the ensemble really hits its stride and delightfully carries off the charm of Wodehouse’s script. Berge, Braibish, and Egusquiza get increasingly zany as Hirsch and Campbell become more and more straight-faced. The combination of slapstick gestures and dry quips results in a comic scene with much depth and texture.

This climax might have been still more effective had it developed slowly and steadily from the beginning. Instead, the dynamics build in fits and starts, and do not really coalesce until rather late in the production. The pacing is too slow at several points in the first act and several opportunities for physical comedy are missed throughout. Nevertheless, the Willamette STAGE Company delivers an entirely enjoyable summer evening with their rendition of this light-hearted play.

By P.G. Wodehouse
Adapted from a Hungarian original by Ferenc Molnár
Presented by the Willamette STAGE Company at the Majestic Theatre
115 Southwest 2nd St.
Corvallis, OR 97339-0756

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