SAN DIEGO — In the 19th Century, the work of playwright Victorien Sardou was immensely popular in France and England. By the 20th Century, his realistic bourgeois dramas became better known as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the old school of drama.
George Bernard Shaw mocked Sardou's work, and that of others in his vein, by referring to them as examples of "Sardoodledum." Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar poked fun of Sardou in his own plays. One of them, adapted by P.G. Wodehouse into "The Play's the Thing," is now showing at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre through July 11.
Producing a parody of a genre now in relative obscurity is a curious proposition, rather like shooting arrows without a target. The exercise lacks a certain point, but if the arrows are shot well, it can be a pleasure in and of itself. The arrows in this very clever production by the Gaslamp are shot exceptionally well.
The plot is pure froth. Two playwrights, Sandor Turai and his partner, Mansky, have taken under their wing a young composer, Albert Adam, of whom Turai, especially, is very fond.
Adam is engaged to the prima donna whom Turai and Mansky want for their new play. The young man has written the music for their show and Turai has arranged for the three of them to surprise the prima donna, Ilona Szabo, by getting adjoining rooms to hers, and singing her the score through the wall.
But it is they who are surprised when they wait on their balcony only to hear her enter her room with her old flame, an actor named Almady.
Thereupon, Adam determines to do away with his score and himself, Mansky bemoans the wreck of their career, and Turai stays up all night concocting a brilliant way of making all things right again.
The plan, when it unfolds, climaxes in a play within a play, replete with outrageous costumes and a scene that results in just enough misunderstanding to make every fooled person feel very clever and very happy.
The actors shine under Will Simpson's sparkling, brightly paced direction. Peter Rose takes center stage as Turai, the self-possessed playwright who never doubts that the right words spoken at the right time by the right person can save the day every time.
Neil Ahern, who appeared as the butler in "The Circle" at the Deane Theatre, is back again as a dour servant, but this time with the wonderfully acerbic lines befitting a Wodehouse-type butler. He acquits himself well, as does Navarre Perry as Turai's ill-humored partner, Mansky. Ron Richards succeeds in making Almady a sniveling whiner without being irksome--no mean feat.
Rebecca Nachison is vivid and colorful as Szabo and Paul Mercier is appropriately melodramatic as her wounded young man. Still, Adam is the most thankless part in the play--he has the least-developed character and the fewest funny lines. The weakest link in the show is the lack of chemistry between him and Szabo.
Robert Earl's set, while not exciting, does succeed as a simple but effective evocation of a spacious balcony in a Mediterranean castle. It is complemented by Matthew Cubitto's lighting and John Hauser's sound.
Dianne Holly's costumes do a fine job in matching personalities to clothes, from Turai's sober colors to Mansky's bright ones. She really cuts loose with the flamboyant prima donna, however, at one point giving her a long, silky dress with a turban and large muffs.
"The Play's the Thing" does not have much to say about life. It has more to say about plays. And even then, when you put the Sardou barbs aside, what it chiefly expresses is cleverness regarding the conventions it has to use, as when the first act starts with Turai wondering how he would start a first act if he were in a play.
The show, in short, has all the weight of an ostrich plume. But it is deftly waved and makes the most charming breeze.
"THE PLAY'S THE THING"
By Ferenc Molnar. Adapted by P.G. Wodehouse. Director, Will Simpson. Set, Robert Earl. Lighting, Matthew Cubitto. Sound, John Hauser. Costumes, Dianne Holly. Stage manager, Phil Shofner. With Navarre Perry, Peter Rose, Paul Mercier, Rebecca Nachison, Neil Ahern, Ron Richards and Jeff Okey. At 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2. Closes July 11. At the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, 547 4th Ave., San Diego.