One of my favorite lines from any Broadway musical occurs when Man In Chair introduces actress Dame Beatrice Stockwell in the deliriously loopy The Drowsy Chaperone (2006). “Now, Beatrice Stockwell was famous for her rousing anthems. She entertained and inspired the troops in every major world conflict up to and including the Falklands War. Of course, by that time she was in her 80s, and her anthems didn’t so much rouse as stupefy...”
Somehow, I couldn't get those lines out of my head during 4th Wall Theatre Company's regional premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's Shakespeare in Vegas. It was as if I had seen Lady Stockwell in all her glory. I was stupefied.
Every now and then, every theater company, no matter its expertise and proficiency, produces a clunker. It's the law of averages and the theater gods having a good laugh. Not even Altuve bats 1,000 percent.
About as bad as any play can get, Shakespeare resembles a play-writing exercise taught by Ken Ludwig, perhaps my least favorite hack playwright. Ludwig has no class, no finesse, no wit, no charm, no invention. He's low-rent and loves shtick, the lower the better, like groin kicks and penis jokes. Ludwig, you might remember, is responsible for Lend Me a Tenor, Leading Ladies, Alice in Wonderland, An American in Paris (not the recent Tony-winning musical), and Treasure Island. He's prolific and immensely successful, but reminds me of those poverty-row writers who churned out Roy Rogers pictures for Republic Studios. It's a living, don't you know.
Next season the Alley Theatre will unfurl another of his literary “adaptations,” The Three Musketeers. I assume the contract was signed, sealed, and delivered months before artistic director Greg Boyd was unceremoniously given the heave-ho for what too many people said was seasons of bullying and untoward indiscretions. Boyd's gone with the wind, but Ludwig's play survived the maelstrom.
I'm stalling on Ludwig so I don't have to talk about Bradbeer.
What a mess this is. The prestigious 4th Wall has been lauded by me and others for its perceptive interpretations, psychological probings, definitive acting. What has gone so wrong?
Sometimes companies are blindsided, sometimes they're just blind. Bradbeer's wheezy satire is a backstager which might explain why 4th Wall gravitated to it in the first place. Sometimes the play reads better than when staged. But by then, it's too late: it's been slated, costumes sewn, sets designed, rehearsals underway. Too late to cancel, you must go for it, full speed ahead. But when you're aboard the Titanic...
Margot (Kim Tobin-Lehl), an unsuccessful NY actress of a certain age (over 40!), has gotten a job in Las Vegas for a season of Shakespeare produced by minor mobster Tony (Philip Lehl), who has a passione for the Bard channeled through his Sardinian grandmother. The results are woefully predictable. There's nary a surprise as Margot deals with strippers as actresses (Christy Watkins and Skylar Sinclair), a handsome ex-con (Braden Hunt) who's a natural at iambic pentameter, his twin ex-con brother, an ancient family curse, and a model of the Globe theater that is some sort of talisman for Tony. The entire affair is dull and unfocused.
The pros are out in force. The top-tier actors (Tobin-Lehl, Lehl, Watkins, Sinclair and Hunt) struggle to breathe life into the cardboard characters, but only Hunt comes across with any semblance of dignity. The production team is aces (set design by Ryan McGettigan; lighting by Clint Allen; costumes by Macy Lyne); while director Jennifer Dean has previously swathed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Lobby Hero, and 12 Angry Men with abundant drama and keen insight, as well as being a fine actress in Pride and Prejudice, The Diary of Anne Frank, Miss Julie, Silent Sky. Yet, nothing goes right.
The tone's off, as is the pacing. The ad-lib quality of Bradbeer's screwball comedy veers perilously close to stilted, while the play lurches, knocking both players and audience off balance. This can't be intentional, can it? There's really no one to blame except the playwright, whose hand in this semi-farce is coated with concrete. Like a Ludwig comedy, the script has no internal logic, no lightness, no reality to ground the antics. Everything is just antics.
Lightly treading over the more fragrant subtexts of Margot's derailed career path and her unsullied optimism in the power of theater, Bradbeer's comic swath sputters and galumphs into a bus-and-truck Kiss Me, Kate, minus Cole Porter. The play takes flight only during its 10-minute intermission.
Shakespeare in Vegas continues through June 9 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53. Pay what you can on Monday June 4
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