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Self-impressed satire: The Torch-Bearers at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Lights Out!

By Ralph Hammann

The Torch-Bearers

By George Kelly, directed by Dylan Baker

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 9

 

‘The 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.

Escaping 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 at Easter.

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.

 


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