The Torch-Bearers by George Kelly. Directed and Adapted by Dylan Baker.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"There will be actresses when husbands are a thing of the past."
Place: Philadelphia. Time: October, 1922.
A woman of Cohoes, Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli, is producing a play entitled "One of Those Things," a "Little Theatre" production of which she is also the director. Mrs. Clara Sheppard, due to play the lead, has suffered the sudden loss of her husband and so, in the spirit of good-fellowship and mandatory social mourning, has stepped down and been replaced by society matron Mrs. Paula Ritter. When Paulaís husband returns home, unexpectedly, from a business trip developments occur quickly and before the new first act is over, he appears to have suffered a massive coronary upon seeing his wife act.
Act Two: the play is on and we are backstage watching the technical aspects unfold in front of us while an unseen audience witness from the front, the play itself.
So, what do we have: Act One, the play is rehearsed with interruptions of all kinds. Act Two, the play is onstage and we are witnessing the chaos and madness of a backstage experience. Wait. Doesnít this sound familiar? Say, isnít there a comedy called "Noises Off?" There is, but this play precedes it by over fifty years. What the two shows have in common is the premise, and the action and not a whole lot else.
This 135 performance play starred Mary Boland as the wife and Alison Skipworth as the director back in 1922. It was considered clever, but it was not a hit. Flash forward to our time: wit the history of physical farces like "Noises Off" why not dust off this forebear and having a nice long at it decide whether or not its worth a second chance. Right now at the Williamstown Theatre Festival the play is getting that second shot, that second look. Well, I can add my two cents plain here. Though still not a hit, a worthy company of players are making a miraculous fondue out of merely decent cheese.
To begin with, you laugh. There are funny lines, funny situations, funny action. Thatís a nice thing to know when you go. Next, there is the sly, period-styled direction which allows women to flounce and men to bounce jauntily along. Gestures are controlled but theyíre awkward for a modern viewer to understand. Costumes, postures, lights and all the technical material in use are needed to give the play a unique look. For these items we can thank David Korins (sets), Ilona Somogyi (costumes) and Rui Rita (lights). Michael Garinís original score has the feel of the early twenties and it works nicely with this play.
Secondly you cry: the cut, nay - say it like it is, the strangled edition of the play with the second act awkwardly split in two between act one and the remainder of act two doesnít serve the intention of the author. This fear of two intermissions is ridiculous. This play needs an intermission between Act Two and Act Three. The actors need to come up for air now and then. So does the audience. Kelly knew what he was doing when he wrote the play that way. Much as did Agatha Christie in her play The Hollow currently at the Dorset Theatre Festival where a three act structure is presented intact and no one disappeared after Act Two for an early arrival at home. Please sit up and take notice, folks. The audience can handle whatever is thrown at them and the second act of The Torch-Bearers needs to take its time, to unfold its story one pratfall at a time. There is no sense in starting Act Two in the Act One costumes just because thereís no time to change them. It is confusing and artificial.
That said there are some delightful, over-the-top performances in this play that spoofs the amateur theater experience in the 1920s. Edward Herrmann gives particular delights as Mr. Huxley Hossefrosse, who plays Dr. Clyde Arlington in the show the cast is supposedly giving. While it takes no talent to be a bad actor, it takes a monumental talent to play a bad actor and that is where Herrmann shines. His Hossefrosse is a polite, sweet, charming man who can only act in the "grand manner" and that style is Hossefrosseís own, and not Herrmannís. As he rehearses his role, or plays it, he is all broad gestures and arched back, but offstage he is merely insecure and working to cover that up. He is always fun and it is good to have Hermann back on the local boards again. He delivers a first-rate performance in this role within a role.
Clearly his equal, in the smallest role of her local career, is Jessica Hecht as the recently widowed Mrs. Clara Sheppard. Clara cannot stay away from the performance being given at the "Hoochee Coochee" or Horticultural Hall. She arrives in time for bows and takes one for a performance not delivered. It is in her stance, her postures, her self-deprecating humility that Hechtís Clara shines. Here is the great star denied her opportunity claiming the credit anyway. It is a very delicious moment and Hecht makes the most of it.
Katie Finneran and James Waterston are the youngest members of the company and two more different performances would not be possible, I think. She is all movement and delivery, both as Florence and as "Mrs. Arlington," while Waterston is her equal as Teddy but her opposite in his "role" as David, the office boy.
Andrea Martin shines brilliantly as Mrs. Nelly Fell, the acting companyís humble prompter. Martin makes something outrageously new of "humble." Her comedy is a bit broader than most, and her characterís flirtatious side is sweeter than anticipated, particularly when she flirts with John Rubinsteinís Mr. Frederick Ritter. Ritter is the outsider, husband of the woman replacing Clara in the play. Rubinstein is so much the sobersides that his offstage maneuverings in this versionsís Act Two come as a surprise and as a charmingly persuasive action.
Becky Ann Baker is his wife, Paula. She is almost too subtle and modern in this role. Her playing is fine, but her character seems to have stepped backward out of the 1930s. She is more subdued and contained and practical and manipulative. It is a nice performance, but not in keeping with the rest of the company. A bit too earthy, if you will.
Lizbeth McKay as the maid Jenny, not an actress, seemed to be unsure of her country of origin as her accent altered with every line. Loyalty to her employer aside, she is the maid you fire for her inability to be herself. Philip Goodwin was good but his constant loss of his cane seemed to be forced rather than the result of nerves, or some other malady.
Katherine McGrath as Mrs. Pampinelli, the heart and soul of the acting company, their mentor, their director, was almost but not quite the force she pretends to be. McGrath came into the show as a replacement for Marian Seldes whose style of playing, so graceful and so arch, would have been perfection in this key role. McGrath has a broader, more entangled playing style and while she may be excellent in the part by closing, she was not yet there on opening night. It seemed clear that she can make it work, but the wide berth that houses her Pampinelli isnít being expanded and it merely gives her room in which to flounder at times, particularly in the final scene where her dramatic sensibilities should be at their peak, McGrath only gives them half their plausible strengths.
One of the most delightful surprises was the performance by Yusef Bulos as Mr. Spindler. Quirky, odd, humorous in subtle and fine ways, this manís performance may be the very heart of this playís reality. If there is anything that can go wrong here, Bulosí Mr. Spindler will be found to be the cause of it. His earnest intervention cripples everything and he is the one who best defines the amateur. Bulos is highly enjoyable in this role.
A two and a half hour exploration of something most of us have encountered in our own lives in some way, this is a fascinating play peopled with fascinating actors playing fascinating people acting. Not an easy task for any director and Dylan Baker does his very best to keep this material fresh and vibrant. Worth the money? Iíd say yes.
Katie Finneran and Edward Herrmann; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Andrea Martin and Katherine McGrath; photo: T. Charles Erickson
John Rubinstein and Becky Ann Baker; photo: T. Charles Erickson
The Torch-Bearers plays through August 9 at the Ď62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. Information and tickets may be found at 413-597-3400 or on line at www.wtfestival.org.