The drama between shows

It's all change at the Players just now. One play is done. The next is imminent. The place is abuzz with furniture moving, props accumulating - a phone, a coat stand, a roast chicken reduced to a black carcass. And a gaggle of New York voices, frenetic, high-pitched, mainly female. Rehearsals are in top gear. The air is thick with the comedy of trauma, Neil Simon-style.

A great deal of thick, lurid violet paint is being slapped around the place. Mostly on the scenery.

Disappearing beneath this weird hue is the black-and-white elegance of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Instead, it is to be a Riverside Drive apartment. The new play is "The Odd Couple (Female Version)." It's the 1980s instead of the 1880s. Astonishing that a coat of paint shifts us from period to period, place to place, style to style.

Style is an intriguing beast. Each play is its own world. Actors, like musicians who play Handel one moment and Schnberg the next, switch from Sheridan to Pinter, from Shakespeare to Brecht.

John Gielgud, that doyen of the theater, put it neatly: "Style," he said, is "knowing which play you're in." Quite.

It reminds me of the Repertory Company in Guildford, England, when I was a student. My memory is that, amazingly, they put on a different play each week - no, it must have been every two weeks, surely. Either way, such a grinding demand for quick-change acting was the solid food on which the most versatile professional actors were weaned.

Imagine. On Saturday you are an elegant Parisian flaneur - idler - in "Gigi." The following Monday you are a pinched Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." Next, you are a tramp in "Waiting for Godot." Then you are the big bad Baron in "Mother Goose," playing to audiences of restless children. And while performing in one play, you are rehearsing another.

The danger of one play's style rubbing up against you and depositing itself in another must be real.

Before I became Prompt for "The Odd Couple," I just watched rehearsals. And at one I had this strange, passing fantasy. Maybe, I thought, Simon is the Wilde of our day. Both are masters of the one-liner, of the tumbling-over-itself, wit-spiced dialogue. And both are dissectors of manners - or lack of manners.

A black-and-white armchair from "Importance" was in service, like an object from another universe, in "The Odd Couple's" New York apartment. Certain familiar faces were at rehearsals, though none were acting. Gordon, who played Lane, the Manservant, in "Importance," was now the director's assistant. The lady who had played the very proper Miss Prism was now doing props. "Importance" hadn't yet disappeared under thick violet paint....

As I watched, the surreal vision I had was of the two plays, in performance, slipping into each other's world. It resulted in a zany piece of drama: Lady Bracknell sweeping in under full sail and an Edwardian hat, imperiously demanding cucumber sandwiches and tea.

Meanwhile, our New York heroines are bickering about the moribund "buffet," provided by Olive Madison (the female equivalent of slobby Walter Matthau). "Hot diet colas and two sandwiches left over from when you went to high school," is how one of the gaggle of Olive's weekly Trivial Pursuit buddies describes it.

And then I imagined Florence Unger (Jack Lemon's no-less-fastidious female alter ego) vacuuming and tidying up the garden in the second act of "Importance." She was saying, with bright intensity: "I could turn this place into something out of Architectural Digest," and asking Miss Prism, would she like Russian blinis for dinner?

And Miss Prism replying, "You don't have to cook. I eat out. In a handbag...."

Oscar Simon and Neil Wilde? I don't think so. I switched the fantasy off.

Styles are best kept to themselves.

* A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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