satire: The Torch-Bearers at Williamstown Theatre
George Kelly, directed by Dylan Baker
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 9
Torch-Bearers” are a group of ungifted community theater amateurs
bound together by their love of the Little Theatre movement
(begun in the early 1900s), their greater love of themselves,
their vast communal stupidity and their utter lack of aesthetic
judgment. The irony here is that most of the characters are
not merely satirizing egotistic and taste-challenged community-theater
players, but also the very actors who are playing the roles
at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rather than attempting
to invest the characters with truth and human dimension, the
bulk of this menagerie merely pose and overact.
It requires very deft—not daft—acting to play bad actors.
George Kelly’s play remains as dull and dated as it was when
I first read it 30 years ago and determined it was not worth
the time and efforts of high-school students. With cardboard
characters, overwritten dialogue, and a thin plot contrivance,
the backstage comedy offers few laughs and little reason to
be endured, save that of historic curio and as forerunner
to its infinitely superior successor, Noises Off, which
director-adapter Dylan Baker seems to be willing it to become.
It’s 1922, and Kelly’s thespians are attempting to perform
a play under the direction of their doyenne, Mrs. Pampinelli
(Katherine McGrath), a pompous old fool who is assisted by
the equally self-indulgent promptress, Mrs. Nelly Fell (Andrea
Martin). The actors include newcomer Mrs. Paula Ritter (Becky
Ann Baker), who is substituting for an actress whose husband
recently died. Act 1 opens in the Ritter drawing room, where
Mr. Frederick Ritter (John Rubenstein) is appalled to see
his wife swept up in the shenanigans of amateur theatrics.
Act 2 primarily affords us a backstage view of the group’s
attempt to perform their play. Baker has wisely trimmed the
play of some of its verbiage and collapsed its original three
acts into two, each consisting of two scenes. And, with the
great assist of David Korins’ set designs, he has ensured
that the shifts between the drawing room and the theater are
fluid—and dramatic in a way that surpasses everything else
in his production.
Most unfortunate of the casualties is an overcaffeinated Katie
Finneran, who bounces through her role with none of the dexterity
that brought her Tony and Drama Desk awards for her wonderful
work in the Broadway revival of Noises Off.
disaster are Becky Ann Baker and Rubenstein, whose characters
are the odd ones out. Baker almost invests her role with a
sweetness that survives stupidity, and Rubenstein derives
a couple of empathic chuckles at his character’s horror of
seeing Mrs. Ritter make a fool of her self.
One could get a bit of perverse pleasure at watching the rest
of the WTF actors making fools of themselves as they prance
about in clouds of delusion thinking they are funny when they
are only as pathetically bent on appeasing their egos as their
“Torch-Bearer” counterparts. There is enough ham on stage
here to stock the meat section of a Midwestern Piggly Wiggly
Edward Herrmann and Yusef Bulos return to the WTF after long
absences. Herrmann, who is sometimes known for phoning in
his performances, should have one here. It is merely sad to
see Bulos return for this.
Downright terrible are Jessica Hecht, who appears to gain
nourishment from the back of the scenery, and Philip Goodwin,
who skips and leaps about randomly whilst awkwardly trying
to execute clumsy shtick with his walking stick. And what
he had in mind by framing his eyes with what looked like long
sticks of licorice is anyone’s guess.
McGrath knows enough Delsartrian movements and postures to
give shape to Mrs. Pampinelli, but she lacks verisimilitude
and is less colorful than the outfits that costumer Ilona
Somogyi has given her—indeed, throughout the show, Somogyi’s
costumes are the most thoughtful distractions to the colorless
script. McGrath was a replacement for Marion Seldes; it would
have been interesting to see what a true diva like Seldes
might have done in—or to—the role.
The WTF production does get its diva, though, in Andrea Martin,
miscast as a replacement for Dana Ivey. Braying or squawking
her lines, Martin comes across as a grotesque mixture of Cleopatra,
Polly Parrot, Francis the Talking Mule and an annoying lapdog
that is too eager for attention. When Hecht enters the fray,
Martin, fearful of being eclipsed in overacting, engages in
mugging of a particularly untoward magnitude. Watch her mouth
as it contorts and gapes, seeking no doubt to lap up any bits
of scenery Hecht leaves unswallowed—or undigested. And when
Martin, Hecht and McGrath all get going at once, the three
gasbags threaten to asphyxiate the entire theater.
The kindest thing that accomplished lighting designer Rui
Rita could have done for this show would have been to leave
it in darkness and let the fools on stage illuminate matters
through the spectacle of their self- immolations.