EmptyMichael Frayn's farce from 1982 is one of those play-within-a-play affairs that, conventional wisdom says, demands actors good enough to play bad actors convincingly.
Unfortunately, it's a double-edged sword because bad actors might be able to do the job just as well. And saddling the South Coast Repertory's talented cast with lame English accents, underlined by a recording of Noel Coward singing "Why must the show go on?" during the first intermission, definitely cripples the fun.
In addition to nonstop slapstick, Frayn certainly provides every conceivable category of theatrical humor. Subtle: "I'm just the one with the English degree," laments the director (Kaleo Griffith, with the powerful presence of a young Timothy Dalton). Promising: A plate of sardines and a box of files make conspicuous appearances almost immediately. Corny: The insecure matinee idol (Timothy Landfield) keeps stopping the rehearsal, asking for his "motivation." Obscure: "Sardines here, sardines there," complains an aging actor (Kandis Chappell, a queen of exasperation), "it's like a Sunday school outing." Really obscure: "It's like Myra Hess playing on through the air raids."
But those accents! Peter Bogdanovich knew what he was doing when he transferred the setting to Iowa for the film version. He also knew that American audiences would have trouble understanding the significance of such provincial towns as Basingstoke, Weston-super-Mare, Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockton-on-Tees.
Fortunately, Art Manke's direction is quick and confident, so any misgivings the audience might have about the accents and the funny-sounding but meaningless English locations is rolled into the momentum of the plot by the large cast of endearing characters, each of whom has her or his own shtick, led by Jennifer Lyon's delicious attacks of goose pimples.
Once the story's gimmick has been set up — however laboriously — in the first act, Manke and his crew ride roughshod over even the most curmudgeonly objections in the two concluding acts, which are filled to a riotous brim with the shenanigans of a troupe of second-rate players, complicated by the petty bumblings of their personal lives.
It's hard not to like the cast members, who try so hard and must follow the complicated comic choreography without fail. But aside from isolated moments, it is only toward the end that one of them — Nancy Bell, playing a hopelessly stable optimist becoming unhinged — provides a brilliant glimpse of what might have been. (partialdiff)