It isn't long into "Jitters" before you wonder how a play ever gets on. David French's backstage comedy, which is having its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, focuses on the terror and tension that grip a theater company before, during and immediately after an opening, when everyone stops bickering to live or die a little over the critics' notices (in this case there's just one) in the morning edition.
A lifetime of this does things to people. Veteran actress Jessica Logan affects the grand manner (Sally Kemp in the role is reminiscent of a young Coral Browne) and, when all else fails, falls back on the trouper's implacable tradition: "The show must go on"--and its unspoken corollary, "I'm in it, and have no place else to go."
Phil Mastorakis takes the position that "it's gore or be gored!" a defiant reaction to a career anxiety exacerbated by his chronic inability to remember lines (one of the funniest scenes in the play is when an uncomplicated exposition scene is rehearsed three times, and Mastorakis, who plays a priest, uses different words each time--and arbitrarily eliminates a cue line that leaves another actor fuming offstage).
Patrick Flanagan is also a veteran actor, a sharp-tongued Irishman, riddled with insecurity and forever on the attack. Naturally he never reads reviews, but it's an interesting coincidence that his observation that "this town finally has some discerning critics" comes out shortly after this morning's favorable notice.
The three, plus young Tom Kent, in his first professional role after graduation from acting school, are in a new work called "The Care and Treatment of Roses" ("Aren't care and treatment the same thing?" queries sour Patrick, for whom no nit is too small to pick). The theater is in Canada. If the play's a hit, it means a trip to Broadway--where Jessica may redeem two earlier flops. If it's not, well, we don't think about that, or of something going wrong--especially since there are no understudies. And for Phil--horrors!--no prompter.
We also meet the shy, self-absorbed playwright Robert Ross, whose character is instantly established when, after beleaguered director George Ellsworth says, "Hi Rob, I thought you'd left," warily replies, "Why? Did you want me to?"
Once he's gotten his actors off book and on their feet and the show looks as if it's more or less starting to come together, Ellsworth shows us that the successful director's next set of skills has to do with being an ebullient, unconscionable liar. How else can he prop up his actors' sagging spirits, or meet the deep anxiety in searching eyes that plead "how am I doing?", with anything other than a ringingly positive note, however false.
A lot of people have found "Jitters" cripplingly funny--mostly theater people who shake their heads and smile inscrutably when you ask them for a description. It will get to you at one point or another--as it did me, numerous times. French knows his subject and has packed in an amazing amount of observation on what theater people are like and what they'll do and say, given these types and these particulars.
"Jitters" never loses its comic rhythm. It has build (opening-night jitters balloon into panic when Tom shows up drunk and Phil very nearly doesn't show at all). And it has a palpable morning-after denouement when the actors have to face what's been said about them.
What's laudable, too, is how "Jitters" maintains a comic tack while showing us characters who brave severe, unremitting emotional pain and, once reviews come out, who have virtually nothing to say about how they are perceived.
When its company members kvetch and tangle with each other, "Jitters" is absorbing, a play that moves through its characters. When it gets into shtick, you start to pull away. If the little we see of Ross' play looks like middling community theater, so does some of the structuring of "Jitters," where you become conscious of French's traditional technique. You can feel the setups developing, which means you begin to anticipate where a comic take or line will occur. After a while, and crucially at the end, "Jitters' " predictability takes its characters along with it.
As Jessica, Kemp manages the grand manner without being overbearing, and brings many comic subtleties to this embattled figure. Flanagan is a very good stretch for Benjamin Stewart, who often gets stuck in stentorian roles. In Stewart, Flanagan's indignation is florid, his self-righteousness comically unshakable. Stewart's fullness is complemented by the wiriness of George Sperdakos' Mastorakis, who is never funnier than when seething over some imagined, petty neglect ("Who the hell needs a rug? I can act hair!" he yells, before one of his numerous stormy exits).