By Ruth Ross
It’s been said that farce is an acquired taste. If that’s true, I cop to having acquired it. Blend it with a play about the theater, and I’m hooked! Of course, the gold standard for this genre is Noises Off!, followed by the more recent Broadway production of The Play That Goes Wrong. Locally, Chatham Community Players has mounted a production of Rick Abbott’s theatrical farce, Play On!, which will keep audiences rolling in the aisles through March 9th.
The wacky plot revolves around a community theater group called the Bluestocking Spotlight Theatrical Players Society that presents four plays a season: a thriller, a comedy, a drama and a musical, in that order. The troupe has acquired the first, Murder Most Foul, without having to pay royalties to the playwright Phyllis Montague, but the arrangement is no free lunch: Phyllis brings rewrites to each rehearsal and is a general nuisance who causes chaos whenever she appears. Over the course of three acts (three days before the dress rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and opening night), pandemonium reigns as the amateur actors—troupe veterans and newbies—struggle to learn their lines, deal with Phyllis’s changes and manage their British accents so that the play will be more “hit than hit-and-run.” (Above L-R: Rachel Gesner, Jim Clancy, Julie Anne Nolan, Lauri MacMillan, Jessica Phelan, Aaron Kellner and Ali Archetti. Back to camera: Chip Prestera)
Director John A.C. Kennedy merrily marshals his band of actors through the mayhem, from halting rehearsal to breakneck delivery on opening night. The characters include both actors and those behind the curtain. Jessica Phelan’s Aggie Manville gamely provides cues to the stumbling actors, while Aaron Kellner’s director Gerry Dunbar tries to control his temper as things spiral out of control. As playwright Phyllis Montague, Julie Anne Nolan is the proverbial pain in the you-know-what, sailing in with a sheaf of papers containing dialogue she wants the cast to learn on the spot. And as sardonic construction crew member Louis Peary, Roseann Ruggiero (right)brings down the house with her distracting noise and miscued sound effects.
We might assume that the troupe’s veterans, Jim Clancy (Henry Benish playing Lord Dudley) and Lauri MacMillan (Polly Benish playing Lady Margaret Dudley; both left) would have a better handle on the proceedings, but they seem to be lost, he doddering and she imperiously quarreling with everyone. MacMillan’s warming up exercises in the opening scene are a stitch to watch. The third veteran cast member, Saul Watson (playing Dr. Rex Forbes), is portrayed with wise-cracking, elfin glee by Chip Prestera (right), whether he’s needling Polly about her weight or taking a nip or two of the liquor he’s sneaked onto the cocktail cart (with the expected tipsiness that derails the production on opening night). Playing the three newcomers are Ali Archetti as Violet Imbry (playing the ingenue Diana Lassiter), Shane Long as Billy Carewe (playing the villain Stephen Sellers) and a chirpy Rachel Gesner, the high school student Marta “Smitty” Smith (playing Doris, the Dudleys’ maid). Gesner is hilarious as she switches from Smitty’s real voice to the high-pitched voice used by the main; Long is a bit difficult to hear and understand as a result of his constantly chewing gum; and Archetti is very funny as she tries to shield the hots she has for Billy.
By Act III, bedlam ensues as the cast rushes around the stage and the surreptitious alcohol takes effect so that the lines get scrambled (there’s an especially funny bit about the name of the gem that causes each owner to be cursed), cues are missed and a dreadful play becomes even more dreadful and dreadfully off-the-wall. (Left: Gesner)
Kudos to Steven Ruskin (set design), Christina Kirk and Kai Movsovich (costume design), Joe DeVico and Julia Lin (sound), and Ed Whitman (lighting).
While Play On! may lack the slamming doors so prevalent in farce, the sight of a troupe of amateur players making a mess of a mess of a play is droll and not lost on the folks at Chatham Community Players. Their productions never devolve into such chaos, but it must be fun to play one that does. Anyone who has read my reviews knows how much I love plays about the theater, especially comedies, and Play On! did not disappoint me. For an evening of side-splitting laughter, performed by a consummate cast portraying a bungling bunch of actors, you can do no better to head on over to the Chatham Playhouse for an evening of glee.
Play On! will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through March 9. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.
(Above L-R: Archetti, Shane Long; Clancy, Gesner and MacMillan. Photos by Howard Fischer.)