SHOWING : April 18, 2008 - April 26, 2008
[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
[REVIEW THIS PRODUCTION]
|by Rockdale Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008 ||
I’m a fool.|
Yes, I am.
It took me till Act III to get the point of John Patrick’s 1950 comedy “The Curious Savage,” revived last night by the New Depot Players in Conyers, Ga.
It’s about women’s lib.
The injustices that happen to Ethel Savage would never have happened to a man in the same circumstances, which are the inheriting of a fortune and the desire to form a charitable foundation. Such a man would have been called a philanthropist. But Ethel is called crazy and—although there is no evidence in the script that she presented the violence required for involuntary commitment—sent to a psychiatric institution by her disinherited and disappointed stepchildren.
It took me two acts and an intermission to catch on because I failed to heed playwright Patrick’s own warning that appearances can be deceiving, like the character of Florence who seemed completely sane until the chilling moment when she introduced an oversized doll as her five-year-old son.
You see, the play’s main motif—beribboned with bon mots like a long-lost Oscar Wilde script—seems to be the teeter-totter balance between hard-nosed reality and the world of whimsy. It’s both a strong statement and a popular one; when the play originally opened on Broadway, post-World War II patrons may have also seen its thematic cousins “A Streetcar Named Desire”and “Brigadoon” during the 1947-1948 theatre season, as well as “Bell, Book and Candle,” which shared the 1950-1951 season with “The Curious Savage” albeit briefly since “Bell” ran for 233 performances and “Savage” petered out after a paltry 31.
Nevertheless, that was 31 times that the silent screen star Lillian Gish may have made her entrance in grand dame style; the play builds up to her appearance by the theatrical device of having the supporting players gossip about her character and in so doing give the audience a great deal of information about what kind of woman to expect.
It’s an entrance that Judy Mauran as Ethel is unable to make at the New Depot Players’ home, Center Street Arts, because the construction of the black box theatre itself and the set accomodating its design require her to enter from downstage left instead of upstage center. After pages of fanfare, instead of taking the stage as a crazy-as-a-fox matriarch propelled by her thirst for adventure and her unconquerable spirit, Ms. Mauran slips onstage like a well-heeled but sensibly-shod nun. We salivate for Mame, and we get a serving of Gooch.
It’s not Ms. Mauran’s fault. It’s theatrical feng shui. If director Cyndi Evans duplicated the Broadway set, then it’s no wonder the original closed after two weeks.
Petty set construction complaints aside, this psychological battle between reason and savagery by the pre-Pulitzer Prize playwright of “Teahouse for the August Moon” pits, in one corner, a family snarling like a pack of dogs, descending into madness with threats of destruction, and in the other, lunatics treating each others’ space, feelings and idiosyncracies with respect and even love.
“Savage,” to quote the institution’s Dr. Emmett, glows like the reflection of a moon on a lake when Ms. Evans gets the pace and her actors’ interpretations right.
“But strike it and it’s destroyed,” Emmett, played by Patrick Telley, said.
Telley, whose voice brings back memories of the late Robert Preston from “The Music Man” and “Victor Victoria,” is one of the actors whom Ms. Evans got right.
His Dr. Emmett was a nuanced study of perplexion, a doctor of the mind having two minds about his newest patient. Telley seemed genuinely puzzled by Ethel’s so-called condition; with good reason, since the dichotomy between her stepchildren’s claims and her own demeanor and speech would have rendered Freud himself unable to reach a diagnosis.
Another standout is Parker Beck as Fairy May who is, as Ethel calls her Act III costume, “sheer delight.” Playing a role created on Broadway by the late Lois Hall, who enjoyed icon status during the 1950s as the queen of the B-movie Western, Ms. Beck flounced, hopped and pirouetted her way through the evening while lending complete gravity to lines like, “You’re very generous for your size and weight.” With her husband Craig Beck’s success last season in his theatrical debut during “Dearly Beloved,” perhaps Conyers will see this husband-wife acting team in a suitable vehicle.
Other theatrical debuts, however, in this production have not been quite as triumphant.
Which is why this critic waited until after closing night to post the complete review. I am not entirely heartless; I couldn’t bear for the actors to go on after reading what I have to say about them.
Vanessa Outlaw as the nurse Miss Willie has one emotion: cheerfulness. Luke Conway as inmate Jeffrey is sweet but annoying, albeit some of that blame must be borne by Ms. Evans who unimaginatively insisted he disguise his character’s imagined scar by holding his hand to his face throughout Acts I, II and III. Both “actors” are as expressive as a box of popsicle sticks. When Ms. Outlaw and Conway—whose characters are supposed to be married to each other—have a scene together, it’s like a tête-à-tête between two unusually stiff clothespins. Although Conway is able to impart an appropos tenderness to his exit line “Don’t forget to take your umbrella,” which is Ethel’s code for “I love you,” it’s too little too late.
Bob Morris as Samuel, one of Ethel’s stepsons who is required to deliver the naïve yet appropriately evil double-entendre “We are savages,” is sadly miscast. The pool of talent must have been shallow, perhaps siphoned off by more attractive auditions elsewhere, for the NDP to charge admission for this awkward performer’s Sunday-school skit skills.
Ms. Evans has said that she thinks it fun to work with new actors. Her mantra, however, should be, “The customer is always right.” All the performers must be of the quality of Ms. Beck and Mr. Telley for this group to attract larger audiences and create raving fans out of them.
It’s not only the inexperienced actors who contribute to my dissatisfaction, however. Just because a thespian has a resume or even an award does not mean he or she can get by.
Tom Harrison as Congressman Titus Savage had ample opportunity between casting in February and the close of the state legislature in April to observe some real politicians down at the state capitol. Whether or not he took advantage of that rich field of research for his character, he only turned in a caricature of a pompous ass. The tragedy is that this player—who won honors last season for his debut in “The Boys Next Door”—is capable of so much more.
Just because Karen Winstead Ruetz is a veteran Depot Players trouper does not mean she is a dependable asset. While her physical comedy was entertaining, her mugging and now-and-then imitation of what she thought was a high-society accent dissipated any goodwill provided by her pratfalls.
Other performances contribute more than they take away.
Tom Johnson as Hannibal, an inmate, presents an interesting side for the audience to explore after his portrayal of a caregiver for mentally-challenged residents in last season’s “The Boys Next Door.”
Ms. Mauran gives a complex reading that conveys ingenuousness and deviousness in equal measure.
Maridel Reynolds shines less brightly than in her “Dearly Beloved” debut but is completely believable as a grumpy client with a prodigious memory for everything she hates.
My hates, despite what you have read so far, did not include this entire production.
I cannot call it “tenacious mediocrity unhampered by taste,” as no doubt Patrick dared the critics to quote him back in 1951 in a line uttered by Ethel about her own one-shot venture into the theatre business.
I am dissapointed, however in the aspects Ms. Evans had the power to change. Besides her unfortunate casting choices, there are the problems of staging and pace.
The pace was too breathless throughout for its bursts of even greater frenzy to be completely effective and appropriate. The proportion of inexperienced talent—one newbie for almost every two stalwarts—took away the audience’s sense of security; what may have been dramatic pauses are easily dismissed as forgotten lines.
The staging, already in trouble with that stage left entrance, was further hampered by a sofa stage right behind which actors clustered like hens taking cover from a fox.
While my list of demands seems endless, I nevertheless discourage Ms. Evans from retiring from directing with “Savage” as her swan song, although she said she has toyed with the notion.
Call me crazy, but I think Ms. Evans should round up her best actors—Mr. and Mrs. Beck, Telley, Robbi Scruggs whose dead-pan delivery made demented-mom Florence all the more disturbing, the Toms Harrison and Johnson, maybe Amber McCullough from this season’s “Crimes of the Heart” and Amy Simerly from "Dearly Beloved"—and then look for the right script.
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