Ferenc Molnar's 1926 "The Play's the Thing" is elegant fluff of a kind that was standard between the wars. Molnar presumed a plentiful supply of actors who had a gift for light comedy. These days, unfortunately, the supply is extremely limited, and apparently none was available for this revival.
This is clear the second the curtain rises on a dark stage on which we can discern the silhouettes of three men. Each in turn lights a cigaret. If this trivial business is done with panache, we are plunged at once into the giddy mood of the play. If, however, it is done as matter of factly as it is here, it just seems odd.
The play's first line is about how hard it is to start a play. If the cigaret business gets laughs, the line seems witty. If not, it underscores how drably things have begun.
The plot itself is absurd. A young composer overhears his fiance, an actress, in what seems to be a compromising situation with a former lover. The composer is distraught. He may not be able to write anything for the operetta on which he is working in collaboration with two savvy playwrights. One of the playwrights concocts a "play within a play" that salvages the situation. The marriage and the show will go on.
This story matters only if the actors are so charming that they engage us despite the silliness of the action. Here, comic bit after comic bit is bungled.
The chief culprit is Peter Frechette, who, even with a wavy hairpiece and a monocle, cannot pass for a suave Hungarian. As the ingenious writer, he must have great urbanity and polish. Frechette merely offers coyness. At one point, he gets to attack a huge tray full of food, a comic actor's dream, but he does no more with the food than he did earlier with the cigaret.
As his partner, Joe Grifasi at least looks Hungarian. As the ingenue, J. Smith-Cameron has a period feeling, but she is often strident.
Paul Benedict's lugubrious butler isn't funny. Neither is Keith Reddin's frantic stage manager nor Jeff Weiss' aging Lothario. As the distraught composer, Jay Goede realizes, as most in this cast do not, that you get more mileage playing it straight than you do camping it up.
The set is tolerable, the costumes often garish, the direction seemingly nonexistent. The only purpose this revival serves is to show how severely limited our actors are at light comedy. Is this something the NEA can remedy?
When does a fashionable play become dated? Or - put more bluntly - what on earth has gone so woefully wrong with the Roundabout Theater's first offering of the new Broadway season, presented last night, Ferenc Molnar's one-time sparky and sparkling comedy, "The Play's the Thing"?
Its champagne, alas, had gone flat. The bubbles did not burst; they ahve clearly but merely expired. Why? Well, the play's not very well done, is indifferently cast and poorly directed in farcical overdrive - more of all that later - but how about the work itself? How has time treated it?
Molnar - ironically now chiefly known for providing, with his play "Liliom," the basis of the musical "Carousel" - was an early 20th-century Hungarian playwright of unusual urbanity and dexterity.
He gloried in technique, in a way that made him a kind of pop-Pirandello, and never more so than in "The Play's the Thing," where the central character of a playwright, Molnar's self-portrait called Sandor Turai, actually organizes the action in front of the audience. Sleight of play, as it were.
Turai (Peter Frechette), his collaborator Mansky (Joe Grifasi) have arrived together with a very young composer, Albert Adam (Jay Goede), late at night to a castle on the Italian Riviera, where they are to put the final flourishes on their new operetta.
Adam is in love with the leading lady, Ilona Szabo (J. Smith-Cameron) and Turai has arranged for the collaborators' suite to be next to her room. Unfortunately, late that same night, through paper-thin walls (some castle!), they all hear Ilona in a faintly compromising bedroom dialogue with a former lover, a married actor, Almady (Jeff Weiss).
Adam is suicidal. The fate of the operetta is in jeopardy. What's to be done? Turai's resourceful response (he overnight writes a short sketch that harmlessly incorporates the incriminating dialogue, permitting Adam to believe that Ilona and Almady were merely rehearsing!) delivers the clockwork mechanism of the play.
It is then a prefabricated exercise in style. The cheekily assured P.G. Wodehouse adaptation (which was actually staged on Broadway in 1926 a few weeks before the Budapest premiere in the original Hungarian) retains something of its farcical bounce. But perhaps no longer quite enough to let us smile happily at the contrivance while overlooking its triviality, even banality.
This is where certainly - whether the play has dated or not - Gloria Muzio's heavy-handed staging is no help.
The production looks wonderful. Stephen Olson has created a Twenties miracle of a salon looking out onto a gorgeous Mediterranean bay, and Jess Goldstein's costumes are in perfect keeping. But the style stops there.
Muzio is as light-fingered as a gorilla in boxing gloves - and her cast is not well-chosen. The accomplished Frechette tries mightily and admirably, but he is obviously some 15 years and 10,000 late-night brandies too young for Turai.
As for the rest, Muzio fritters the talents of capable actors - also including Paul Benedict and Keith Reddin - carving everyone into crudely sculpted wooden puppets, when they should be exquisitely fashioned china figurines. No more life, but a lot more polish!
You see, with "The Play's the Thing," unfortunately the play is not the thing. Even Molnar, little reputed for his modesty, must have known full well that it had equally to be the playing.
"The Play's the Thing," P. G. Wodehouse's 1926 English adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Hungarian comedy "The Play at the Castle," retains the potential to enchant. Yet it's not until late in the evening that any hint of enchantment surfaces in the Roundabout Theater's commonplace revival, which opened last night at the Criterion Center.
This "Play's the Thing" is not a disaster to equal the misguided Roundabout staging of "Hedda Gabler" just a year ago. It looks handsome. It has a cast of good actors, all of whom have performed with merit in other works. What's missing is any sense of the securely sophisticated style that defines high comedy. Most of the time the production is like something put on by college students, not all of whom appear to be the right age for the roles they're playing, even when they are. It was only my imagination working overtime with boredom, but I thought I could detect the scent of talcum powder in the air.
With "The Guardsman," also adapted from Molnar, and "Twentieth Century," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, "The Play's the Thing" is one of the three funniest comedies ever written about mythomania in the theater. It's also the most playwrighterly of the three, being virtually post-modern in the way that it calls attention to the very theatrical conventions it so skillfully uses while also sending them up.
Thus, at the curtain's rise, Turai, the principal writer of the play-within-the-play, notes how much time is wasted in attempting to start plays gracefully. He suggests that matters could be handled far more efficiently if each character simply stepped forward, introduced himself and explained the initial circumstances, which they do.
Though unspecified in the program, the time is the mid-1920's. The place is an Italian castle high above the Mediterranean. The situation is this: Turai, a successful playwright, and Mansky, his common-sensical collaborator, have just arrived at the castle in the middle of the night with their newest protege in tow. He is Adam, a young composer hopelessly in love with Ilona, the diva who is to star in the operetta he's writing for Turai and Mansky. The three have made the grave mistake of planning to surprise Ilona, who's also staying at the castle.
As they are settling into their suite, they suddenly overhear Ilona in the next room making love to Almady, a ham actor and a former flame. The sensitive Adam goes to emotional pieces; he'll never write another note of music. Mansky is ready to cancel the show then and there. Only Turai keeps his head. Thinking fast, he devises a plan to insure that his newest, most glorious production will not close at 3 A.M. out of town before the critics have had the chance to make fools of themselves.
The plan? To convince the distraught Adam that Ilona and Almady were not making love but simply rehearsing a Sardou play that they will perform for the other castle guests that evening. All Turai has to do is write the play, incorporate the ghastly real-life dialogue they have overheard, blackmail Ilona and Almady into acting in it and then make sure that the befogged young composer discovers this "truth" for himself.
"Life isn't all theater," Mansky says to his partner early on, but Turai -- and Molnar -- know differently.
"The Play's the Thing" seems slight. Yet when it's performed by the right company, it can be as much dreamy fun as a fireworks show: a gorgeous if ephemeral display of the way in which civilized behavior can briefly triumph over life's usual chaos. Not much of this comes through in the Roundabout production, directed by Gloria Muzio and performed by actors who, most of the time, are all too visibly working hard. Often they don't even seem to know one another very well.
Peter Frechette's Turai is a figure of more boyish charm than self-absorbed mania. He seems to be acting the role less often than imitating someone else acting the role. As Mansky, the comedy's small, occasional voice of reason, Joe Grifasi does well in what is really a secondary role. J. Smith-Cameron is attractive but lightweight as Ilona, when she should be a passionate, self-dramatizing, larger-than-life star who sees herself reborn by Adam's innocent love.
As Dwornitschek, the comic butler, Paul Benedict performs with the kind of admirable understatement that pays off if everyone around him is clearly mad, which these characters aren't. They're only busy. Jay Goede, as Adam, and Keith Reddin, as the prompter for the Sardou rehearsal in Act III, have something of the style the others lack.
Jeff Weiss's Almady lies low in the first two acts, but in the third act, dressed in Sardou regalia, he is very funny in the play-within: wrestling with Turai's Sardou-esque lines, as well as with lines of now-distasteful purple passion that he himself spoke with such abandon a few hours earlier to Ilona.
The laughs he earns are genuine, but they are an unconscionably long time in coming.
Possibly the saddest aspect of this production is that it will ruin Manhattan's chances to see "Rough Crossing" anytime soon. This is Tom Stoppard's very free, brilliantly farcical adaptation of the same Molnar play, which, under the direction of Michael Maggio, was given a memorably uproarious production by the McCarter Theater last fall. Too bad.
Even in as woefully miscast and lumpish a revival as the Roundabout offers to launch its 30th season, the third act of "The Play's the Thing" is very nearly foolproof comedy. Set in a drawing room in the "new" wing of an Italian castle, the scene revolves around the rehearsal of a short play that has been written just hours before by a pragmatic librettist hellbent on salvaging the engagement of his naive composing partner and their considerably more experienced prima donna. That it is the "new" wing is essential, for in the early hours of the same day, the writer and composer overheard through the thin walls a salacious encounter between the singer and a voice coach who has been her lover.
Devastated, the young man is determined to destroy his work -- and with it any chance that the group's idyllic retreat from "thin-skinned actors and thick-skinned managers" will be productive.
So while the rest sleep, the writer concocts a "French" scene attributed to Sardou that ingeniously incorporates the explicit exchange and forces the errant couple to "rehearse" it in front of the company. Thus the composer is duped into thinking that the early morning scene was merely a pre-rehearsal.
The act features a manic factotum serving as unwanted sound-effects man, and the total humiliation of the old teacher, who wages a losing battle with ever-longer strings of French names.
All in all, it's about 20 minutes of heaven-sent hilarity in an evening that has otherwise been sheer hell. For this, blame must lie squarely at the feet of director Gloria Muzio and casting director Pat McCorkle, for one is hard-pressed to conjure another recent event when so many good actors have looked so bad.
Worst is Peter Frechette's epicene Sandor, the writer who saves the night with his playlet; followed by Joe Grifasi's hoarse, coarse Mansky -- Sandor's writing partner -- and Jay Goede's composer, who plays dim and callow where only callowness is required.
The biggest disappointment is J. Smith-Cameron's trapped singer, a sexy role for which you'd think she was ideal, but which for some reason she plays as an ingenue (Carole Shelley was memorable in the role in a 1978 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music).
Paul Benedict, looking like an overstuffed Charlie Chaplin, seems to be sleepwalking through the role of an ever-helpful butler,and Jeff Weiss is a complete huckster as the lecherous teacher.
But something a little miraculous happens in the third act, when Keith Reddin , playing the nervous clerk, breathes fresh air into the proceedings.
The entire enterprise shifts into high gear for the finale. He's funny, Weiss is funny, Smith-Cameron is game, and if the production still fails to achieve the libidinous drollery Molnar suggested -- this is, after all, a European's play about sex -- at least there's a glimmer of Kaufman-and-Hart-style hijinx.
The physical production is lavish looking, but neither Stephan Olson's ornate seaside setting nor the unflattering costumes from the usually flawless Jess Goldstein are particularly attractive. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting includes some funny shadow play that doesn't, in the end, add much.