It's been a few years since Nagle Jackson wrote "At This Evening's Performance"--10 to be exact. This featherweight comedy playing at Theatre 40 takes a stereotypic look at a third-rate repertory company struggling to survive in a fictitious Soviet Republic he calls Strevia.
Earlier this year, Jackson (who is artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.) was in Leningrad to direct Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie"--one of a handful of American directors traveling to the Soviet Union these days to stage American plays in Russian with Soviet actors. Question: Would Jackson be inclined to write "At This Evening's Performance" now? He says yes, partly because it's set in the past, but early or late, this "Performance" is a limited entry in the dubious pantheon of backstage comedies.
Jackson's seedy Strevian company is playing the classics in some benighted totalitarian provinces when Gunther (nicely played by William Wright), the group's actor-manager, gets wind that one of the actors will be shot on stage before the night is over. The plot has its prima donnas, its placid old actor (beware still waters that run deep), an Igor-like stage manager and a sinister minister (of culture).
It's also replete with love affairs. Ingenue Saskia (Sarah Partridge) is having one with Gunther, while Saskia's fiance Piers (Russell Sommers) is having one with Gunther's wife Hippolyta (Deborah Packer).
Need we say more? A little more.
The play is not quite broad and adulterous enough to be compared to "Footlight Frenzy," gimmicky enough to be a forerunner of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" or plain funny enough to match David French's "Jitters."
The fact that it's set in the not-so-distant past (Jackson says he had the '50s in mind) gives it a certain quaintness, but the overblown production at Theatre 40 is just clumsy enough to feel closest to George Kelly's "The Torchbearers," a much older play.
Under Bruce Gray's bland direction, the actors force the comedy instead of playing against it. Nothing wears thin quicker than actors working hard at being funny.
Packer leads the pack with plenty of posturing as the supercilious Hippolyta, while Milt Kogan's stage manager, Valdez ( Valdez? ), is strictly Neanderthal.
Things don't necessarily improve when the actors strive less. Dan Peters' minister of culture is an understated villain defined by the predictable parameters of television. Bill Erwin is adequate as the old actor, Oscar, but it's a severely underwritten role. Sommers and Partridge cope--no more, no less.
The best-realized aspect of the production is Richard Bluhm's dilapidated dressing-room set.
In the end, Jackson and Gray must share responsibility for the oddly anachronistic feel of the show and for its limitations (especially in the light of the summit), but, in fairness, there's some pretty funny ersatz Shakespeare in there.
This "Performance" will never be great, but it could be better. Hippolyta's "He has this notion that someone's gonna get shot in the third act," to which the minister of culture replies, "Come on, the second act wasn't that bad . . ." is perennially good for a laugh, glasnost or no glasnost .
Performances at 241 Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills (on the Beverly Hills High School campus) run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m., until July 3. Tickets: $8-$10; (213) 465-0070).