by Geoff Hoff~
It takes guts to compare your play with Noël Coward and Pirandello as Theatre Unleashed did with the production of the play Modern Drama, now being performed at Studio/Stage. The press release calls Modern Drama, “Private Lives meets Six Characters in Search of an Author“. Writer/director Bill Sterritt has won many awards for his plays, so I had some hope for this. Unfortunately, guts aside, the production doesn’t come close to meeting that high standard.
I have said before that it is sometimes a mistake for a writer to direct his own work. Unless he is as accomplished a director as he is a writer, the tendency is to fall overly in love with the script and distrust both the actors and the audience to “get” it. I fear this is the case here. The script seemed more forced than witty (yes, there were some lines that were amusing, but there were surprisingly few laughs the night I saw it) and the performers seemed to have been directed to telegraph every joke, punch every witticism least we miss it, and pose every moment and emotion into being.
A lot of what makes Noël Coward work, even in lessor productions of his plays, is the “throw away” aspect of some of the best lines. They sneak up on you and you start paying more attention so you don’t miss the next one. Here, nothing snuck, and I felt myself bracing for the next bit rather than anticipating it.
Mr. Sterritt also required of some of his actors a sophisticated poise that they simply didn’t possess and couldn’t conjure. In an early moment, one actor enters and stands upstage center, striking “charming” poses as another actor described him. It was clumsy at best. That kind of poise requires, I think, a studied detachment that was missing, but it also requires an inner calm that would be hard to achieve when you are so intent on getting the wit and humor across.
Also, in a play like Private Lives, the twists and turns in the action and history are part of the delight. There were twists, here, but most were telegraphed (the major twist was telegraphed literally by the very first moment of the play) or were, again, forced. It is possible there is more to this script than I saw (there were, indeed, references to all sorts of thing modern and literary in it) that more restrained direction could bring out.
The story. In Provincetown, MA, Gordon Gordon (Jeff Groff), a director for the local theatre company, descends on the house of Crocker and Hillary Morton (Rick Brunner and Lisa Temple). Crocker had, years ago, written a comedy of manners that took Broadway and, subsequently, regional theatre, by storm. None of his plays since have lasted more than a performance or two, but he has moved to Provincetown, surrounded by lesbian and gay bars, to live a comfortable life on the royalties from that play. Mr. Gordon wants to commission another play from him so he can put the local theatre back on the map, get Hollywood deals, get on Bravo and all sorts of other things. Hard to believe that a single potential production written by a has-been could so turn one’s fortunes around. Also hard to believe he can get any and every Hollywood producer and agent on the phone to do fact checking. Anyone with those kinds of connections doesn’t need a has-been to propel his career, I would think.
(There are other things that simply don’t make sense, but listing them would be pointless.)
That one successful play by Mr. Morton, it turns out, was inspired by what happened when he and Mrs. Morton were in London years earlier. She had a dalliance with the gardener that he walked in on. In retribution, he had a dalliance with the maid and made sure she found out about it. It ended the intimacy of their marriage (she has been bedding young men ever since, we don’t quite know what he has been doing), but it also created four Dopplegangers, the characters from his play, who hang around, not saying anything, but imposing themselves on everything Mr. Morton does. They aren’t so much in search of an author as they are insistent he never leave them out of whatever he does.
The best acting in the piece are by two of the Dopplegangers, Jason Paul Evans and Sarah Ann Vail as Mr. and Mrs. Rosdale, who never say anything but have a wonderful presence and comic timing.
The set, by Geronimo Guzman, was actually quite good, the Provincetown living room and surrounding boardwalk. The built-in cyclorama at the Studio/Stage worked perfectly to suggest the seaside town. One side of the stage, however, was the proscenium arch and curtain of the local theatre. It was interesting, but was mostly just used for entrances and exits. The program art was also reproduced on both sides of the stage, a depiction of all of the characters, both real and Dopplegangers, hovering around the table where Mr. Morton writes. I think it was meant to echo Al Hirschfeld, but having two of it so large was distracting. On the program would have sufficed.
Another “interesting choice” was that they filled the tiny theatre with plastic sea-side deck chairs rather than the customary folding chairs. As interesting as it was, the effect was that the small area afforded the audience was made even more crowded.
The lights, by Ana Serrano, and costumes, by Irwin of Irwindale, were also quite good, as was the sound design by Joe Louis Cedillo.
Modern Drama is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 5 pm through July 1, 2012.
Studio/Stage is located at 520 N. La Brea in Hollywood, 90004, just south of Melrose
Tickets: $10 general admission
Reservations by phone at (323) 463-3900 or online at http://www.studio-stage.com/