By Pat Launer
“Comparisons are odorous,” Shakespeare’s malaprop-spewing Dogberry famously declaimed.
Comparing Nagle Jackson’s 1978 trifle, “At This Evening’s Performance,” to Michael Frayn’s hilarious and brilliant “Noises Off” (as occurred in some promotional material) is both odorous and odious.
(For the record, Frayn’s farce premiered after Jackson’s, in 1982, but he wrote an earlier, one-act version in 1977).
The only thing these two theater works have in common is that they are set both backstage and onstage, with a third-rate company of actors.
Nagle’s play is not as funny as it wants to be, either as comedy, farce or political satire. It’s primarily a sendup cum valentine to actors and acting, and confronts the difficulty of maintaining artistic integrity, especially in a totalitarian state. In this case, that would be Strevia (the mere mention of which causes all these Dunskites to spit), a fictional, fascistic Eastern European imperialist autocracy (which calls itself a Democratic Socialistic Republic).
Under the undercooked, perplexing direction of Andrew Barnicle, the strong cast (almost all seasoned Equity performers) fails to engage with the material or the audience.
The detailed set (Marty Burnett’s clever cutaway of two adjacent dressing rooms that convert to onstage scenery for the second act play-within-a-play), like the company itself, isn’t seedy enough. The costumes (Elisa Benzoni) aren’t cheesy enough. The humor isn’t broad enough or physical enough or comical enough, and it feels forced, but not in an amusingly over-the-top way. Everything seems underplayed (these are supposed to be farcical prototypes), which doesn’t do the weak material any favors.
The only one of the 7-member cast who consistently elicits laughter is Richard Baird, as an unpopular member of the Popularity Force, a tattooed, black-gloved thug whose menacing deadpan steals the first act.
The assignations fall flat: the neurotic head of the company (Bruce Turk) is having an affair with the ingénue (Sierra Jolene), and his wife (Turk’s real-life wife, Katie MacNichol) is after the male ingénue (Paul Turbiak), while the two young things are actually into each other. The aging actor (Kyle Colerider-Krugh), kind of a cypher, stays mostly out of the fray. His comic business is misplacing his various prop body parts (there’s an errant ear and chin). None of this comes off in the least facetious.
Each of the actors seems to be in a different play, employing a different dramatic style and a different approach to comedy; does this mean they were all left to their own devices?
John Nutten, making a late entrance as the monstrous Minister of Culture, a falsely affable tyrant, offers to elevate the troupe to the status of National Theatre of Strevia — as long as they produce his plays, the latest of which is titled “Arnold of Romania.”
The playwright didn’t stop there. He weaves throughout a tortuous plotline about an underground agent within the ranks of the company, who is destined to give a signal “at this evening’s performance,” at which point, he’ll be shot. The suspense doesn’t build much, and the dénouement isn’t particularly revelatory. It doesn’t really much matter who the culprit is, since the characters aren’t compelling enough for us to care.
It should be noted, however, that the lighting (Matt Novotny), sound (Aaron Rumley), props (Andrea Gutierrez) and wigs (Peter Herman) serve the production well.
North Coast Rep has done some side-splitting farces over the years. This offering just doesn’t make the grade — neither the play nor the production.
- “At This Evening’s Performance” runs through Aug. 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach
- Performances are at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 7 p.m. on Sunday, with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. A special talkback with the cast and director will follow the July 21 performance
- Tickets ($43-$50) are available at 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org
- Running time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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