John Glore's new comedy "On the Jump" makes few demands on an audience. Chiefly it demands to be described by way of the paradox--"mildly madcap," for example.
It's like a Preston Sturges farce played at half-speed; you want it to really take off, to send its characters colliding, yet there's a fogged, dreamy quality to Glore's writing. Sometimes it's affecting. Other times, it's simply at odds with the narrative devices employed.
But the South Coast Repertory world premiere, which opened Friday, directed by Mark Rucker, has a few choice performances capturing some of the old screwball energy and class. That's not nothing. That's quite a bit, in fact.
SCR's longtime literary manager, Glore based his work on an unfilmed screenplay by his wife, Amy Dunkleberger. A contemporary version of the kind of dame typically played by Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur or Claudette Colbert provides the hook for this fairy tale.
On her wedding night, Colleen Ferguson (Kellie Waymire) is robbed and abandoned by her husband (John Fleck, in a variety of supporting roles). Deciding to end it all, Colleen ventures onto a bridge where she spies a young man, Bertie (Joseph Fuqua), also about to jump. She startles him, he slips, falls . . .
Crestfallen, Colleen eventually meets the man's wealthy estranged grandparents, Albert and Arabella Wheatcroft (Alan Oppenheimer and Patricia Fraser). Before you can say "madcap heiress," Colleen pretends to be their late grandson's widow. She's taken into their plush lair, egged on in this adventure by her eager actress pal Dorie (Julyana Soelistyo). Only the butler, Forrester (Richard Doyle), senses something's off.
There's so much life and verbal dazzle in the best of the '30s and early '40s Hollywood romantic comedies, a playwright certainly could do worse than to attempt a modern spin on the genre. Craig Lucas did, in two different keys, with "Reckless" and "Prelude to a Kiss" (both filmed with indifferent results). In charting one woman's search for happiness, "On the Jump" is interested in using the plot strands of screwball to weave something more delicate. Scenic designer Neil Patel is interested in the same thing: his spacious, symbol-laden scenic design keeps images such as an oversized wedding ring and a broken watch face on stage throughout.
Yet you never quite buy into it. Colleen's zigzagging through the lives of the rich and credulous is fitfully engaging in the main, rarely more. (One of the best lines is simplicity itself: The butler enters the room, someone asks him what he wants, butler answers the question with, "A simple life. A pleasant retirement. A painless death. What do YOU want?") But on some crucial level "On the Jump" lacks a sense of logical illogic, a motor to keep it all running.
Partly it's in the playing. Director Rucker keeps the tone leisurely, perhaps to a fault. When Colleen tells her friend she's a "nervous wreck," little in the show's rhythm or in Waymire's otherwise fine performance suggests as much.
All the same, Waymire's a fine actress (she did wonderfully as the babe-dog in A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia"), and has the slightly tetched appeal of the great '30s comic heroines. Waymire teams up especially well with Oppenheimer and Fraser, both pitch-perfect and unusually graceful as the Wheatcrofts. Doyle's Topeka-bred butler is just right too. Soelistyo has natural audience rapport. Melanie Chartoff, in the functional roles of waitress and gold digger, does her double duty well. Fleck, the controversial performance artist, exists on his own stylistic plane; he works throughout in sketch-comic mode, all by his lonesome. But he's pretty funny anyway.
In the midst of it all is Fuqua, playing the mopey object of Colleen's growing desire. Fuqua's way, way off. All the wormy, slack-jawed, fidgety line readings add up to too much and not enough. Too bad, because on the high end--when Waymire, Fraser and Oppenheimer share scenes together--you're given a real taste of what Glore's going for in "On the Jump." These three remind you of how much there is yet to be mined in those sturdy screwball archetypes.
* "On the Jump," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends June 27. $28-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Kellie Waymire: Colleen Ferguson
John Fleck: Billy, Bartender, others
Joseph Fuqua: Albert Wheatcroft III
Richard Doyle: Forrester
Patricia Fraser: Arabella Wheatcroft
Alan Oppenheimer: Albert Wheatcroft
Julyana Soelistyo: Dorie
Melanie Chartoff: Ellen O'Connell, Waitress
Written by John Glore, from a story by Amy Dunkleberger. Directed by Mark Rucker. Set design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Walker Hicklin. Lighting design by Scott Zielinski. Music by Dennis McCarthy. Sound design by Justus Matthews. Stage manager Scott Harrison.