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A CurtainUp Review
The Torch-Bearers

Comedy, that ability to prick an audience into unified gasping submission, is a highly under-rated skill
--- Wendy Wasserstein in her introduction to Three Plays, an anthology of George Kelly's three best known plays, including The Torch-Bearers
Actor-turned-director Dylan Baker and his terrific cast of farceurs have indeed tapped into all the inherent humor of George Kelly's 1922 satire of the community theater movement to unify the audience into that sublime and rare gasping submission. Thanks to Mr. Baker's sure-handed direction, the original three acts of The Torch-Bearers have been smartly divided into two acts of two scenes each and with enough inventive touches to camouflage its not being quite on a par with his later comic masterpiece, The Show-Off.

Act one, scene one finds Frederick Ritter (David Garrison) returning home from a business trip to find his living room being prepared for a rehearsal of a play by the local community theater group with his wife (Faith Prince), who has never set foot on any stage, plunged into the leading role after the original lead's husband inconsiderately drpped dead at the eleventh hour of its first performance. It seems she has come through what she calls "my first offense" with flying colors. One by one the marvelously droll band of amateurs (make that amateurish) actors and their unforgettably funny Pied Piper, Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli (Marian Seldes) enter.

That rehearsal is the prologue for the coup de thèâtre which takes us backstage to the Horticultural Hall, dubbed Kitchy-Kutchey by Mrs. Pampinelli. The curtain is about to rise on One of Those Things, the play within Kelly's play (for which the Greenwich House audience are supplied with an additional a program -- a slyly amusing addition courtesy of the director). Having met all the players and their leader you won't be surprised that disaster piles upon disaster. But Mrs. Pampinelli leads her bungling troupe through the nonstop mishaps to a miraculously triumphant end. This Keystone Kops mid-section is a romp that straddles farce and burlesque and is funny enough to keep us buoyed up through the somewhat tame finale in the Ritter home.

As is evident from this summation of the play's two days in the lives of these amateur thespians, the heart and soul of the comedy is the haughty, self-deluded Mrs. Pampinelli. Like the title character of his best-known play, Craig's Wife, Kelly pillories her and at the same time elevates her to the status of unforgettable character. When he was looking for an actress to play her in a 1938 revival he specified that Mrs. P. be played only by ". . .an absolutely legitimate actress. . .one that can play comedy--legitimately. For while she {Pampanelli} is a grand, damned fool, she doesn't know it. And most of the actresses that specialize in comedy roles find it difficult to keep within the limits of their characterizations. And the result is caricature."

Kelly would have been thrilled with Marian Seldes, who seems to the Pampinellian manner born. Her vain, arty, self-important "directress" is nothing short of perfection The gestures and looks that in some roles I've seen her in have bordered on the excessive, are here exactly right. The outstretched arms. . . the tossed back head . . . the despairing look downward. . . the pause before the punch lines. . . and the pencil raised like a torch when she counters Mr. Ritter's observation about the fatalities that seem to accompany amateur performances with "we have the lessons of history to fortify us for whenever the torch of essential culture raised". Just thinking about it all sends me back into the grip of a giggle.

As central as Ms. Seldes is to the proceedings, the secondary and more benignly spoofed characters are major assets of this production. Faith Prince is delightfully ditsy as the pleasingly plump leading lady of the marital drama staged at the Kitchy-Kutchey and the ripple-effect drama in her marriage. She is the picture of contentment with just the faintest stirrings of theatrical ambition and Mr. Baker has astutely caught the humor of the pull between homemaker and ham by having her passing around candies, drinks throughout the rehearsal at which she's clearly as much the hostess as actress with the mostest.

Joan Copeland also delivers a performance of finely calibrated comic timing as the wealthy patroness and promptress Mrs. Nelly Fell. Having been married three times she is amply qualified to advise the abruptly widowed Clara Sheppard (a small role made much of by Claire Beckman) to "get through the next few months as undramatically as possible" and bear in mind that the late Mr. Sheppard was only her first husband and that "it isn't as though you'd lost someone who was very close to you." Judith Blazer is amusing as the frequently engaged gal about town who is cast as the other woman in the group's play.

Interestingly, the playwright who always came down on the side of the man, was at his best in writing women characters. While he gives Mr. Ritter the last laugh, the male characters in The Torch-Bearers don't hold a candle to the torch bearing ladies. Nevertheless, David Garrison, gives an understated and most likeable reading to the husband who probably represents the playwright's sympathies. And the always excellent Albert Macklin is expertly inept as Pampenelli's quick-on-the-salute (he served three months in a stateside post during World War I) aide-de-camp who never "forsakes one in the hour of quotation." The three male amateur players, are adequate though, should this production extend, not irreplaceable.

The whole cast is costumed with whimsical charm and sublime elegance Jonathan Bixby and Gregory A. Gale. By the time each has come through the hallway of the Ritter home, the living room is a gorgeous tapestry of browns and rusts, with red-headed Faith Prince a colorful counterpoint in teal green. The only misstep in the otherwise breathtaking aptness of the costumes is the outfit worn by Jenny the maid (Susan Mansur). I can understand Director Baker wanting to dispense with the stock black and white maid's uniform of the time, but somehow, even with a half apron tied around her waist, Jenny looks more like one of the guests than the family retainer.

Michael Vaughn Sims has furnished the Ritter living room to evoke an aura of solid middle class comfort with an unobtrusive set of hinged panels at either side to effectively take us to the backstage area of the Horticultural Hall. The see through panels cleverly afford occasional glimpses of the actors in silhouette. Exits to the sides of the hectic backstage area as well as two constantly malfunctioning doors insure that the fumbles and stumbles can continue in uninterrupted confusion.

Unlike Wrong Mountain, a recent new comedy about the "real" theater, The Torch-Bearers makes no pretense at deeper meanings. It's edginess (a word frequently associated with the Drama Dept) is that it's so unapologetically without any purpose except to entertain -- in short, it's nonedginess.

For our recent review of an anthology of George Kelly's three best known plays, go here
For a copy of the book go here

By George Kelly
Directed by Dylan Baker

CAST: David Garrison (Frederick Ritter), Faith Prince (Paula Ritter), Marian Seldes (J. Duro Pampinelli), Judith Blazer (Florence McCrickett), Joan Copeland (Nelly Fell), Paul Mullins (Ralph Twiller), Don Mayo (Huxley Hossefrosse) and Albert Macklin (Mr. Spindler).
Set Design: Michael Vaughn Sims
Lighting Design: Mark Stanley
Costume Design: Jonathan Bixby & Gregory A. Gale
Sound Design: Robert Murphy
Hair Design: Darlene Dannenfelser
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission Presented by The Drama Dept.
Greenwich House, 27 Barrow(2 blocks south of Christopher) 541-8441
2/11/2000-3/04/2000; opening 2/23/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/21 performance

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