Pirandello, with belly laughs

Not for Children

By Elmer Rice
Directed by Ted Kazanoff
Theatre Asylum
The Gene Frankel Studio Theatre
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

This tour-de-force shows Elmer Rice in total control of a difficult medium: the play about the theatre. (An actor pauses. Then speaks: ``I'm giving the critics time to write `Pirandello.''') Frankly, this play beats Pirandello all to hell, because Rice actually has some fun with his characters, over and above the glib discovery that they rebel against their author and their dramaturgically prescribed fates.

The crass producer Timothy Forrest (Len Duckman) has hired two writers (Theodora Effington, played by Maryellen Rowlett, and Ambrose Atwater, played by Barry Abramowitz) to lecture us on the meaning of his play, because he thinks it will boost box-office if audiences know what it's about. Sound premise.

The story gets foggy, with a critic/actress couple (Peter Husovsky/Kitty Coyne), torn apart over whether she should pursue her career goals (several decades too late) in vulgar Las Vegas, and their talented maid (Carleigh Welsh), who came on from time to time to perform song-and-dance numbers.

The amusing byplay among these multiple personalities of the author is cleverly summed up in Prudence's song, ``Multiple Personalities,'' with a choreographic tribute to, among other icons of cultural history, Sigmund Freud. Also amusing was the agent Hugh McHugh (Paul Tavianini), in glaring red pants and Technicolor`` jacket.

The play lagged a bit with the dialog between the narrators, whose official conflict -- over whether the theatre is an artistic podium for serious ideas or a mirror holding up dangerous falsehoods -- grew rather thin after two hours. Some judicious cuts might be in order here, to bring the focus back on the story-within-a-story. Though Barry Abramowitz especially milked as much defeated ferocity from his role as a failed scholar as humanly possible.

The set, designed by Chuck Gonzales, consisted of some black-and-white set pieces (a dressing-room mirror, for example) behind a fake proscenium arch, with a drop in front on which were scrawled colorful abstract shapes and some slogans (``Fabulous Invalid,'' for one). The narrators started downstage, in the audience's half of the space, but in the second act found themselves upstage, behind the proscenium arch, playing actors talking about their roles as narrators.

Well, even the impresario is confused, which is why he hires a couple of commentators in the first place. He gets lucky, though, when Elmer Rice is hired to rewrite the script (written by one of the characters, Digby Walsh, played by Mark Elmore). To ensure a happy ending, Elmer kills himself off in the script and donates all his money to start a repertory company, with the narrators/actors as co-artistic directors. Sound like an Off-Off-Broadway fantasy?

This was the kind of show where it is hard to single out members of the ensemble for individual efforts above and beyond their colleagues', probably a tribute to director Ted Kazanoff, who for the most part kept this three-ring hall of mirrors spinning.

Costumes, designed by Amela Baksic, were extremely colorful and equal to the mood of fantasy. So were the original music and choreography, by Daniel Levy and David Maurice Sharp, respectively. Lighting designer Mathew J. Williams delivered a bright and flexible design -- flexible enough to be cannibalized just before curtain, when the impresario's spot burned out.

(Also featuring Jennifer Tulchin, Sara Shea, and Dan Lundy.)

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1997 John Chatterton

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