Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Torch-Bearers doesn't quite burn bright

Ham on wry: Katie Finneran, Edward Herrmann, and Andrea Martin bring down the house (literally) in The Torch-Bearers.

The second Williamstown Theatre Festival offering I caught last weekend was George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers, which was clearly meant as the festival's summer crowd-pleaser - a neglected minor classic that recalls such seasonal favorites as You Can't Take It With You and Hay Fever, but still boasts its own wry (even cynical) insights and charms.

The crowd at the Williamstown Main Stage, however, was not entirely pleased, even though adapter/director Dylan Baker had streamlined the text, and cast such stars as Andrea Martin and Edward Herrmann as the amateur thespians at the center of the script. It turned out that star power, however, wasn't quite enough to get the production to gel; what was required was a certain technical directorial intelligence, the kind that can fill every second of stage time with a building sense of wit. In short, the show needed someone like Nicky Martin in the driver's seat, or perhaps the director of last year's Feydeau, John Rando, who could have constructed a gleaming perpetual-motion machine out of Kelly's keen-eyed satire. But while Mr. Baker has some skill (and he's actually directed Torch-Bearers before), he isn't in the same league as Martin or Rando, and it shows; the comedy's central set-piece, for instance - a saga of backstage calamity that should cascade, like Noises Off (a clear descendant) into something like chaos - never got any momentum going, despite some hilarious moments. And there were subtle, but persistent, problems in the ensemble: dropped lines and flubbed physical bits surfaced on more than one occasion, and in a parody of amateur theatricals, that's not a good thing.

To be fair to Mr. Baker, however, time and circumstance may have prevented the production from reaching a high polish: it lost two cast members over the course of the summer (rather like its production-within-a-production). And in subsequent performances, some loose ends will surely be sewn up: cues will tighten and the slapstick will brighten. The show already boasts a smart comic turn from Katie Finneran (as a particularly wooden would-be starlet), and an even better dramatic one from John Rubinstein, who lightly sketches both affection and something like contempt into his portrayal of a husband so appalled by his wife's emoting that he actually succumbs to apoplexy. Meanwhile, in the central role of Mrs. J. Druro Pampinelli, the solemn high priestess of the eternal mysteries of community theatre, Katherine McGrath has what it takes to be fine once she's steady on her lines.

But other performances are slightly disappointing. The lovable Andrea Martin (a late addition to the cast) nails her laughs, of course - because she's a great pro who understands where all her jokes should land; but she hasn't yet internalized a character for her character (a prompter who pulls focus by always needing prompting). Likewise Edward Herrmann hasn't come to full flower as the troupe's flamboyant star, Huxley Hossefrosse (although to be fair, he has his moments; his entrance through the flats during that central star-crossed performance may alone be worth the price of admission). Alas, other supporting performances feel muddled (Yusef Bulos), unclear (James Waterston) or just bizarre (Jessica Hecht). And in the role of that atrociously-acting wife, Becky Ann Baker (wife of the director) was sweet but muted, and unresponsive to the happy, intimate chemistry Rubinstein was all but pouring in her direction; thus the domestic comedy threaded through the script (which also foreshadows many an I Love Lucy episode) never took flight. Perhaps this was due to the perceived sexism of the nearly-century-old text; after her disastrous debut, our leading lady is patted back into her domestic role, it's true (and there are other hints that an unspoken battle of the sexes is being waged on the bohemian boards). But the way to deal with this issue dramatically is to make her character stronger, not weaker - and certainly not dazedly submissive. And able to realize that yes, she's terrible onstage (this important arc was all but missing from the final act).

If that sounds like a lot to fix - well, it is; but productions have had rougher opening weekends and nevertheless come together (as I know from experience). Williamstown has at least done the show up right; David Korins's set is accurately crafted (if not quite inspired), and Ilona Somogyi's costumes rightly mix bourgeois propriety, art-nouveau mysticism, and happy flapperdom. And certainly The Torch-Bearers bears reviving; its witty take on the innocent egotism of self-appointed artistic avatars (who are "bearing the torch" of dramatic art into the darkness of the suburbs) is as deadly accurate as ever. So here's hoping over its run at Williamstown this flickering production really catches fire.

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