A Comedy Confection That Never Quite Reaches Its Potential


Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the

Criterion Center Stage Right

Through August 20.

Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's works are rarely produced anymore, and there's a reason. Charming and witty, they are also slight confections that are difficult to stage. They require a great deal of style, which must be achieved in a way that looks effortless. The Roundabout's current production of the 1926 comedy "The Play's the Thing," in the version adapted by P.G. Wodehouse, is like a cake that never rises.

The play, which opens this esteemed theater company's 30th season, is set in a castle on the Italian Riviera, where a successful musical-comedy playwriting team, Sandor (Peter Frechette) and Mansky (Joe Grifasi), are vacationing along with Albert (Jay Goede), the talented composer whom they hope will produce the music for their next hit show.

Unfortunately, it seems that Albert is in love with the pair's star actress Ilona (J. Smith Cameron), and when she is discovered to be having a romantic dalliance with her singing coach, Almady (Jeff Weiss), Albert is devastated and refuses to work.

Sandor decides to repair the situation by inventing a scenario whereby the lovers can cover up their indiscretion by pretending to have been rehearsing a scene from a play. No such play exists, of course, so it is up to Sandor to invent one, matching the lovers' dialogue to a new scenario. The "rehearsal" of this new work, performed for Albert's benefit, comprises the hilarious third act of "The Play's the Thing."

Another aspect of Molnar's work is his playful tweaking of theatrical conventions. When the play begins, for instance, the characters onstage immediately begin discussing what a play's characters should do when the curtain comes up. The most humorous example of this comes before the second intermission, when the characters propose various methods of closing the act; as each idea is proposed and abandoned, the curtain continually falls and rises until the right solution is found.

The problem with the Roundabout production lies mainly in the casting. Although it features many fine performers who have distinguished themselves on the New York stage, few are particularly suited to this style of theater.

Frechette, for instance, who must project an air of elegance and insouciance, comes across as merely smarmy. Still, they all have their moments. Weiss scores big laughs in the mock rehearsal scene with his ever-escalating difficulty with a myriad of French names.

Amusing portrayals are turned in by Paul Benedict as an unctuous butler, and Keith Reddin as a hapless prop man.

The production design is splendid, with Stephan Olson's lovely set (contained behind a shimmering metallic curtain), and Jeff Goldstein's elegant costumes set the mood beautifully.

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