By George Kelly
Directed by Kathleen Bishop
Woman Seeking... Productions (www.womanseeking.org)
Center Stage NY, 48 West 21st Street, 4th fl. (841-0326)
Equity showcase (closes Oct. 21)
Review by David Mackler
George Kelly is surprisingly neglected as far as playwrights from the '20s go - his best-known work, Craig's Wife, was filmed several times, but The Torch-Bearers was turned into a Will Rogers vehicle (complete with title change). And that's a shame because all the characters are what make Woman Seeking's production such a delight, and what a charming, loopy, endearing bunch they are.
The Torch-Bearers has no pretensions to heavy drama - it's a knowing light comedy that makes fun of theater and theatrical aspirations while at the same time it is a valentine to those very attributes. All of these people take everything they do completely seriously, and none of the actors condescended to the character he or she was playing. The exactly right tone was set from the beginning (direction by Kathleen Bishop), with Mrs. Ritter (Christine Mosere) being preoccupied with having been cast in the play that the community theater is presenting - even to the exclusion of her husband, who has returned from a business trip (well, he wasn't expected until tomorrow anyway). Mrs. Ritter is praised for being "naturally theatrical," but she is nothing compared to the play's director, Mrs. Pampinelli (Sonja Stuart), who can't take a breath or a step without making an extravagant gesture. But Stuart didn't overdo it for laughs - the lines and her complete belief in herself were all that were needed. Mrs. Pampinelli is also the kind of director who mouths everyone's lines with them, then nods in satisfaction - satisfaction with herself, that is.
The first act includes a rehearsal of the hilariously dreadful but heartfelt drama they will be performing at the Horticultural Club, or the Hutchy Kutchy, as Mrs. Pampinelli calls it. The second act is a view of the performance from backstage, with all the attendant hubbub and hysteria, as well as a view of the performance being presented. (Michael Frayn's Noises Off owes a very large debt to The Torch-Bearers.) And in fact, audience members who remained in their seats for intermission were treated to the complete scene change done in full view, as well as the gradual reappearance of the characters. It was worth staying for.
Unfortunately, the set (designed by director Bishop) was one of the places where the production fell short - not in its concept, but in its construction. With so much else going right, it was a shame that some of the audience's attention was diverted toward concern that a flat might fall, a door might stick, or another might not close properly. Sound effects were good, particularly during the backstage portion, but perhaps the acoustics of the theater were to blame for the distraction of overly loud-sounding footfalls. Lighting (designed by Stephen Brady) was also good, particularly when the audience were "backstage."
Stellar performances were turned in by Chelsea Silverman, Ann Parker, Kristen Cecala, Dale Carman, David Dean, Jane Purcell Dashow (as a wonderfully funny maid), Ange Berneau (as a woman more upset by losing her part than losing her husband, who at least was well-insured), and especially Michael Schaefer (as the absurdly named Mr. Hossefrosse) and Elizabeth Bunnell, who starred as ill-fated lovers in the overbaked melodrama happening upstage. Dan Jacoby and Mosere (ok, Bishop and Kelly too) deserve credit for turning what might have been a mawkish third act (played with only a slight pause after the backstage second act) into a loving reconciliation (Mr. Ritter was never thrilled with Mrs. Ritter's stage ambition).
George Kelly hasn't the reputation of Philip Barry, but he deserves to be known for more than being the uncle of one Grace, who got her start as an actress in a production of this play. And Woman Seeking... is to be praised for playing it with all the affection it deserves.
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler