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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Play's the Thing

Life isn't all theater — Mansky Yes, it is. If you write plays.—Turai

Robert Gomes & Caralyn Kozlowski in   The Play's the Thing
Robert Gomes & Caralyn Kozlowski in The Play's the Thing (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
When a play is revived as many times as is The Play's The Thing, you know it has to be something special. This mostly rollicking and often riotous comedy by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar (1878 — 1952) was originally titled The Play At The Castle. The adaptation by P.G. Wodehouse remains the most popular adaptation since its Broadway premiere in 1926. And it is Mr. Wodehouse's estimable touch that prevails in a delightful production directed by Joe Discher for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey.

The plot unfolds in a room in a Castle on the Italian Riviera. Jesse Dreikosen's setting is stunning and handsomely detailed in the Italianate style. The sumptuous suite includes a terrace from which we view far below the curve of the coastal town cradled by the blue Mediterranean. One might quibble with the mix and match costumes by Brian Russman that bridge haute couture from the 1920s and 1930s to modern day tuxedos. But they are so elegant, chic and otherwise eye-catching that they are a show unto themselves. Mainly it is the convoluted cavorting of the play's characters, a group of professional theater people, who find themselves consigned to provide the hotel's weekend entertainment that so decorously and delectably provides the best embroidery.

Where would this nonsensical trifle be without a cast as thoroughly polished in affectation and style as this one? During the course of the play Sandor Turai (Mark Jacoby) and Mansky (Colin McPhillamy), a successful operetta and playwriting team, attempt to fix the schism created when their youthful composer protege Albert Adam (Jared Zeus) overhears his betrothed Ilona (Caralyn Kozlowski), the leading lady, making love to Almedy (Robert Gomes), her ex-lover. Everyone seems to have zoned into the slightly sexy and seriously silly core of Molnar's comedy. Despite the fact that this is high comedy rather than farce, the actors bring their obligatory posturing to a notably sublime level of artifice. For this we recognize Discher's deft control of every breath and beat.

It isn't surprising that Jacoby got a call back for a second season at the Shakespeare Theater, having displayed his Molnar panache in 1999 with Enter the Guardsman, a musical version of The Guardsman. Jacoby, whose Broadway credits include Ragtime, John Doyle's revival of Sweeney Todd, and Harold Prince's staging of Showboat, is a wonderfully foxy Turai. He's full of self-congratulatory assurance as the quick thinking playwright who must save his next play from potential disaster. He devises a scenario, or rather a play within a play, that will insure that Albert did not really hear what he really heard through the walls.

What about those Hungarian architects and paper thin castle walls? Blessed with good looks and a boyish charm that won't quit, Zeus amusingly conveys the pain that comes with the discovery that his fiancée is heard rekindling an old affair. Although his role is relatively minor, McPhillamy, as Mansky, realizes its potential as the voice of reason with beautifully timed and tempered responses.

As Ilona, Kozlowski is the embodiment of the glamorous self-serving star who has mastered every theatrical trick and uses them to hilarious effect. And what a knockout she is in a Jean Harlow hairdo and flowing peach negligee. No role for a butler, since PG Wodehouse's Jeeves that is, has been as important a presence in a play as is Johann Dwornitschek, who thankfully answers to simply Dwornitschek. As played to perfection by John Little, Dworknitchek has much to say but of little consequence yet nevertheless divulges it in a delightfully undemonstrative manner.

While the comedy travels its carefully calculated course it peaks in the last scene when Almady, as played with bravura narcissism by Robert Gomes, performs as an 18th rogue who gets his tongue twisted around a run of French names and places in the play within the play. It doesn't take but a few double takes for late arriving Greg Jackson, the Count's Secretary cum castle stage manager, to catch up to the level of the others. As Discher explains in his program notes: "Molnar's title is of course a reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet, but with a twist. In Hamlet, the play-within-a-play is supposed to expose the King in his guilt, but Molnar uses the convention to exonerate the leading actress."We are left eager to exonerate them all in their support of love, their expectations of another big hit for Turai and Mansky, and for giving us such a good time.

Postscript: The Play's The Thing also inspired noted British playwright Tom Stoppard to write his own free-wheeling version set on a cruise ship called Rough Crossing which never made it to Broadway but, nevertheless, delighted audiences at the McCarter Theater in 1994. And is currently at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, where Elyse Sommer will review it shortly (For dates, cast and other details go here).


The Play's The Thing
By Ferenc Molnar
Adapted by P.G. Wodehouse
Directed by Joe Discher 
Cast: Mark Jacoby, Colin McPhillamy, Jared Zeus, Caralyn Kozlowski, Robert Gomes, John Little, Greg Jackson
Set Designer: Jesse Dreikosen
  Costume Designer: Brian Russman
  Lighting Designer: Bruce C. Auerbach
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
  The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey,F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, Madison, N.J., 36 Madison Avenue (Route 124), located on the campus of Drew University at Lancaster Road.
  Tuesday through Sundays through July 1, 2007. Opening Night: June 9, 2007
  Regular ticket prices are $37—- $52, For tickets and more information call 973 — 408- 5600;
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance June 9, 2007
Running Time:

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