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A CurtainUp Review
By Jeeves
Les Gutman

So why are we doing it again? Well for fun, really. Sorry about that. Can't think of a deeper reason, offhand.--Alan Ayckbourne

And that about says it all. It's the key to understanding By Jeeves. It's all about silliness, and if you try to read much more into it, you'll drive yourself crazy. The plot is impossible to follow, and doesn't matter anyway. The audience smiles, and laughs, and leaves happy.

Inspired, if not based on familiar characters invented by P. G. Wodehouse, Jeeves (Richard Kline) is the quintessential butler, of a type, Wodehouse nostalgically wrote, that passed on with Edward VII. Jeeves is in the service of Bertie Wooster (John Scherer), a basically annoying young man of the upper class who falls somewhere between "oaf" and "chump" -- both words used to describe him in the show.

We find ourselves in the audience of a church benefit at which, for reasons not clear, Bertie and his banjo are to be the entertainment. Unable to locate the banjo, Bertie (with Jeeves as part-time narrator, stage manager, dramaturg and all-around instigator) improvises a two hour reminiscence, complete with a cast of 12. Suffice it to say the story has something to do with a series of substituted, mis-substituted and resubstituted identities.

The production history of this show has received as much press as the show itself. An awesome flop when first produced in 1975 (then known only as Jeeves), it was revived last year, first in England, and subsequently at the Goodspeed Opera House, which co-produced this mounting with the Kennedy Center. Although this show is referred to as the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber (and he did in fact write the music), the fingerprints of Alan Ayckbourne (who wrote the book and the lyrics, and directed) are all over this project. Not only is the music rarely more than incidental, more often than not it is the brunt of Ayckbourne's jokes. For those who complain Webber writes sappy, formulaic and pedestrian music, they'll be perplexed to learn that is exactly what's called for here.

The burning question at present is what the future holds for By Jeeves. More specifically, will it find its way to New York. A recent press report, quoting Goodspeed Executive Director Michael Price, seems to throw cold water on the idea. Another report nonetheless continues to suggest talk of bringing the show to New York. Our opinion: New York? Why not? Broadway? No.

By Jeeves is a small, unimportant show, but it is not a bad one. In a world in which we try to remember that big is not always better, shows which play small should not be rejected. And a night of meaningless fun has its virtues. While the writing runs circles around the typical "meaningless fun" television offers, moving this show to Broadway would ruin it: it would have to be too big and too important for its own good.

In re-engineering Jeeves, Ayckbourne has merged clever writing with even more clever staging. Because Bertie needs lots of props and scenery to improvise his play, and because Jeeves is resourceful, the church storeroom becomes a theatrical treasure trove, to hilarious effect. The site of Bertie touring the countryside in a motorcar fabricated from an up-turned dining table with a sofa as its seat and a corrugated box as its trunk, restores our faith in the inventiveness of the British mind. Jeeves' concoction for Bertie's tough "ladder to the second story window" scene rivals the technical complexity of anything in Lord Webber's Phantom of the Opera, which happens to be visiting downstairs in the Kennedy Center Opera House for the duration of the summer tourist season.

The performances are solid. Scherer is fine as the unfortunate consequence of, I suppose, too much inbreeding among Britain's upper class. Kline, who is (for better or for worse) remembered as Larry on TV's Three's Company, is excellent. (In a more important play, I might be inclined to say, "Kline is Jeeves".) The supporting cast does a good job playing characters with great names like Honoria Glossop, Bingo Little and Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Sets, improbably by Roger (no relation to Honoria) Glossop, are church-hall perfect, as are Louise Belson's costumes. The lighting, by Mick Hughes, is also well designed, even if it alone belies the humble capabilities of the average church.

based on stories by P. G. Wodehouse 
Book, lyrics and direction by Sir Alan Ayckbourne 
Music by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber 
starring John Scherer and Richard Kline 
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (202) 467-6000 
June 4-August 31, 1997
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