The theatre-lite season has gotten an early start this spring. The Lyric Stage is closing its season with a second farce, Ken Ludwig's sprawling "Shakespeare in Hollywood" a pleasant entertainment that doesn't really live up to its premise. The Stoneham Theatre, which had scheduled a Michael Hollinger play, is instead hosting Minneapolis-based Troupe America's production of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys", which Dick Van Patten and son James Van Patten have taken out before. They're joined by veteran Boston actor John Davin, last seen at Stoneham two seasons ago as Mr. Mushnick in "Little Shop...", whose most recent Boston appearance was at the Wheelock Family Theatre selling magic beans to Jack. Lyric's show boasts a solid local cast, several of whom have also appeared for Stoneham as well.
"Shakespeare in Hollywood" was originally commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Co., but never produced in England. When it was finally premiered by the Arena Stage in Washington DC, its physical antics were successful, but the script doesn't seem to have gotten much dramaturgical attention. Which is unfortunate. Farce is a delicate balance between premise, character and comic writing. This play doesn't quite develop its premise(s), may have too many characters based on real Hollywood legends, and depends on quotes from the Bard out of context rather than effective jokes for much of its attempted humor. Moreover, an experienced Shakespeare producer might have pointed out the glaring omission of Titania--the wife!--from the plot's complications. The play is based on the whimsical notion that somehow Oberon and Puck take a wrong turn somewhere in the aether after the wedding and wind up in 1935 Hollywood where Max Reinhardt is directing the film version, for Jack Warner, of his stage spectacle based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Given his first IRNE for the lead in "A Little Night Music" at Lyric last fall, Christopher Chew is an impressive King of the Faeries, while actress/choreographer Ilyse Robbins makes an energetic Puck, somewhat incongruously chasing dames by the end of the play, but that's what the script calls for. Robert Saoud, who was the tenor in Lyric's production of that best known of Ludwig's plays, slips easily into the part of lowbrow movie mogul Jack Warner. As Jack's actual mistress Lydia Lansing, a talentless starlet who was cast in the movie as Helena, Caroline deLima, seen as a member of the "Sideshow" for Lyric, makes a hilarious bimbo. As Hermia, IRNE nominee Elizabeth Hayes plays Olivia Darnell--read deHavilland--with simple charm, attracting amorous Oberon. Olivia however has eyes for her opposite in "Midsummer...", dashing Dick Powell, played by the most experienced Shakespearean in the cast, Ben Lambert.
Add to this situation actor/ director, Peter Carey, usually seen in musicals, as everyone's nemesis Will Hays, Hollywood's first censor, who wants to cut the script. Then gussy up comedienne Margaret Ann Brady as gossip columnist Louella Parsons and theplot starts to boil. Ken Baltin, who was last seen at the Lyric as the lead in the IRNE winning "Glengarry, GlenRoss" is an avuncular Reinhardt, not quite an accurate picture of that Austrian regisseur, but effective in thisinstance. There's also Bob DeVivo fresh from "Assassins" playing Jimmy Carney, cast as Bottom, and David Krinitt who was in last season's closer "Noises Off!" playing another vaudevillean, Joe. E. Brown, cast as Flute aka "Thisbe". Gabriel Field gets tossed into the mix as Jack's yes-man Darryl, assigned to keep an eye on Lydia. Farce might well be afoot. But it never quite happens, though this experienced cast under award-winning director Spiro Veloudos keeps the play humming along on Janie E. Howland's minimalist set with more than a dozen locations. Boston's hardest-working costumer, Gail Astrid Buckleyof course gets the costumes just right. If only there were a better script for all this effort.
Stoneham's "Sunshine Boys", written by the second most produced playwright in the English language--the Bard being reportedly the first--is much more predictable, not simply because it's been around for more than three decades and was made into a pretty good movie. Doc Simon's formula seems especially thin in this script. Indeed the funniest part of the show is the ersatz vaudeville sketch which opens the second act. The actors all work very hard, though only Davin as Willie Clark really has the timing and the sense of New York down pat. The Van Pattens may have been away too long on the West Coast; both seem just a bit bland under mid-westerner Curt Wollan's direction. Both woman in the show, buxom Monica Hauser as the Nurse in the aforementioned sketch and Illeana Kirven as Willie's real nurse in the final scene provide needed energy. Van Patten Sr. is an effective actor but plays Al Lewis too affectionately. Son James is appropriately contemporary--or at least 1970s--but doesn't seem to be in a comedy. This Simon product is entertaining, and less fraught with problems than last year's "Odd Couple". Troupe America hasn't stinted on the set, props, sound or lighting for this touring stock show. Stoneham's season closer, the even more venerable "The Mousetrap", will feature Lisa Morse who currently has the lead in Zeitgeist's production of Michael Hollinger's "Tooth and Claw" at the BCA.
Both these shows, "Shakespeare in Hollywood" or "The Sunshine Boys", may encourage less-adventurous members of the general audience to keep coming to the legitimate theatre. Each promises entertainment first and foremost, whether timely or not. On the musical scene, the Huntington's about to revive Massachusett's native William Finn's "Falsettos", which should please its core South End audience, while North Shore Music Theatre is readying the stage version of "Fame" with a host of young local talent for its family crowd. However the ART in Cambridge is sticking to its "no more masterpieces" principles with Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" directed by its favorite Hungarian, Janos Szasz. Over on Broadway in Somerville, the Theatre Coop is about to premiere Vladimir Zevelinsky's new adaptation of Gregory Gorin's satirical tragicomedy from the late Soviet era, "Forget Herostratus", for those who seek political relevance. Not everyone has chosen to simply entertain.