ProArts' production of "The Play's the Thing," P.G. Wodehouse's adaptation and translation of Ferenc Molnar's "The Play at the Castle," made me laugh like I did the first time I saw Mel Brooks' "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein."
The play, with one of the best casts assembled in a long time, is reputed to be among the funniest ever written about compulsive lying. It lives up to its billing.
Wodehouse breaks the "fourth wall" (the imaginary wall separating the actors from
Dale Button (left to right) as playwright Sandor Turai prompts ham actor Almady (Scott Newman), while diva Ilona Szabo (Jennifer Rose) looks on in ProArts’ production of Ferenc Molnar and P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Play’s the Thing.”
the audience) almost immediately, when Dale Button as Playwright Sandor Turai, decides that instead of suffering through all the usual first-act exposition, "Why don't we just tell the audience who we are?"
The principles go on to share with the audience who they are--first Button, then Vinnie Linar-es, Turai's cranky sidekick; producer Mansky; Maui's best, young leading man, Dylan Bode as Albert Adam, the composer and betrothed to the diva Ilona Szabo, who is played perfectly by Maui's best comic actress, Jennifer Rose.
The playwrights had a great time fooling with the theatrical form--not just breaking the "fourth wall," but messing with the idea of the play within a play as a major plot element, while simultaneously satirizing the theater. It is most clever writing.
Their approach is almost post-modern, as the characters wrestle with play construction, characterization and act endings. I loved the almost-Beethoven-like end of the second act, with Adam, Mansky and Turai positing logical endings for the act they are in.
Unlike some comedies that have the audience in stitches from start to finish, "The Play's the Thing" is like a steam locomotive. As it leaves the station, it chugs rhythmically, gaining steam and speed. Once it reaches cruising velocity, it moves along swiftly and surely, blowing its whistle as it streaks down the tracks. And the audience is more than happy to go along for the ride.
The scene is the Italian Mediterranean in 1925, but the only thing dated is the language. People, unfortunately, no longer converse in the manner of the creator of Jeeves the butler. I say "unfortunately," because of how delicious the language is.
For example, when Adam is heartbroken over having heard his love, Ilona, being romanced by the cad, ham, actor and teacher Almady (who is hilariously played by Scott Newman), he decides that the second act should end with a suicide by bread knife. Playwright Turai chides him, saying, "Very bad, my dear young fellow. You simply can't wipe out the young love interest at the end of the second act with a bread knife. That's crude. And there are the critics. The critics dislike bloodshed. If there is to be any slaughter, they prefer to attend to it themselves."
The primary conceit of the play is that in order to save the music Adam has composed for the operetta Turai wrote and Mansky will be producing, Turai has to convince Adam that the melodramatic love scene heard through the door in Act 1 was a rehearsal between Szabo and Almady of a scene from a play.
Turai stays up all night to create a play, skillfully incorporating the grotesque, clich-ridden dialogue heard through the door in act one.
Then, Turai must blackmail the lothario, Almady, and the diva, Szabo, into performing the play, at the same time, making sure that the heartsick composer Adam realizes that what he heard the night before through the door was merely a rehearsal.
Of course, it wouldn't be Wodehouse without a butler. He gives us Johann Dwornitscheck, brilliantly underplayed by Lee Garrow, in one of the finest performances he has given on Maui.
Also in the cast is the marvelous John Peterson as the hyper Mr. Mell, who has the unenviable task of property master, stage manager, prompter and general factotum for the upcoming evening performance.
The pacing of the work brings the audience gradually to the paroxysms awaiting them in the third act. Newman, in the play within a play, provides the Brooksian hilarity through his virtuosic performance in that final act. The interplay between he and Rose is just plain marvelous.
Linda Ewing's elegant, yet slightly quirky costumes, successfully bring us back to the roaring '20s. Caro Walker's set once again transports us to a castle in Italy. Bonnie Prucha is the lighting designer.
We have grown to expect Off Broadway quality from ProArts in an Off-Off-Broadway-sized venue, and this production continues that tradition. Producer and Director Jonathan Lehman made his job easy by choosing one of Maui's most experienced and accomplished casts.
"The Play's the Thing" continues at ProArts Playhouse at Azeka Center-Makai Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 2.
Thursdays are Kama-'aina Nights with reduced admission for Hawai'i residents.
For more information and tickets, go to proartspacific.com.
Don't miss it!