By Bill Marx
George Kelly’s 1922 comedy about amateur theatrics gone wild is showing its age.
The Torch-Bearers, by George Kelly. Adapted and directed by Dylan Baker. Presented by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, through August 9, 2009.
Katie Finneran, Edward Herrmann, and Andrea Martin acting up a storm as amateur thespians in The Torch-Bearers.
Critics don’t figure as heroes in many plays, but bourgeois businessman Frederick Ritter supplies the crucial pan in George Kelly’s The Torch-Bearers, a fitful 1922 comedy about amateur theatrics gone wild.
Ritter comes home from a business trip to find that his wife, Paula, has been lulled into a cabal of mediocre thespians, led by the self-regarding Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli, an abject admirer of the “Little Theatre” movement, which appealed to (mostly female) suburbanites eager to express their love of art and beauty. He must wrench his wife from the clutches of these pretentious poseurs (and eradicate her dreams of stardom) if he is to maintain his happy home of an empty nest.
Kelly’s reactionary politics – his fear of feminism – really kicks in during the third act, when Ritter delivers his kibosh of a review. By that point the smell of mildew is unmistakable.
Kelly raises a few chuckles at the delusion of the preening performers, a parade of types that range from the vapid ingénue and oft-married widow to incompetent hangers-on and blustering bores. (I have a weakness for backstage dramas and novels about the theater, so I eye Kelly’s crew of wannabes with warm affection.) Pampinelli’s nostalgia for a career that never was — nipped in the bud by a “jealous” husband who forbids her to go on the stage when she was young – amuses with its small town hubris. But the figure never really ascends to the stature of comic monsterhood, perhaps because her desires are so transparently dotty. She doesn’t whip herself into a frenzy of plotting, conniving, or backstabbing as she self-deludes her way to show biz debacle.
Perhaps, as Kelly hints, Pampinelli knows the truth in her bones: her productions are horrendous. The disastrous play-within-the-play performance proffers a few rich giggles, providing a roll-call of misfires, including teetering scenery, blown cues, forgotten lines, and stuck doors. But critic George Jean Nathan was, as usual, right – this is a vaudeville sketch spread much too thin.
Kelly can wring fun out of the cast and crew’s demented blindness for only so long – he never deepens or varies the humor, so the play runs out of steam well before the final act. At that point we are supposed to root for Ritter’s thumbs down review, hoping he will rout Pampinelli and save Paula, which amounts to watching him shoot hams floating in a barrel. Also, the comic rhythms of the play reflect the more relaxed expectations of the time – adapter/director Dylan Baker has sensibly trimmed lines and compacted acts, but the uneven Williamstown Theater Festival production moves along at a slo-mo duck walk, an awkward waddle somewhere between a sit-com and a farce.
Seen today, the play’s most interesting target isn’t the pretensions of the artists because, in truth, Pampinelli’s vision of a star-in-every-home has won. The idea that everyone is an artist (or can be trained to become one) is now accepted by just about everyone (aside from critics), the ‘creative economy’ an unquestioned given in a world where art has become — in and out of the Academy — a big business. No, Kelly’s hysteria about uppity women intrigues much more, given the number of jokes in the play about wives wanting their husbands dead so that the bored lonely ladies, who have been biding their time, can spread their wings (and look for new conquests) with hubby’s cash. The husband of one of the actresses cast in the show dropped dead while watching her act: Ritter collapses into a coma taking in the run-though of the melodrama “One of Those Things.”
It isn’t only that bad theater kills – in this play drama (the arts?) is a weapon of public vengeance used by women to put their men in their place, preferably the grave. (The men in Pampinelli’s troupe – including a shell-shocked (?) World War I vet, a youngish guy who faints during the show, and the affected Mr. Huxley Hossefrosse – are a spindly bunch.) Kelly suggests that Ritter must battle for the masculine way of life, a rearguard protest against the corruption of high culture that apparently appealed to businessmen buying Broadway tickets at the time.
J. Duro Pampinelli (Katherine McGrath) giving Florence McCrickett (Katie Finneran) acting tips in The Torch-Bearers.
The WTF production offers some engaging comic performances, with Andrea Martin garnering laughs as the rambunctious Mrs. Nelly Fell, a widow who knows the ropes after multiple husbands. Fell must be one of the most belligerently inept prompters in the history of the theater. Still, Martin’s over-the-top approach doesn’t fit with the more toned down performances given by the rest of the cast. A comedy like this needs a consistency of tone – but the performances veer from the frenzied to the minimal.
Katherine McGrath doesn’t bring the requisite amount of zingy energy to Pampinelli: she uses her elocutionary voice to good effect, but McGrath doesn’t modulate her tone or face to made us hear or see the woman’s loop-de-loops from tyrannical certainty to anxious fear. I would almost like to see the actresses switch roles: Martin would have made for a Pampinelli overflowing with out-of-control gusto, a furious harpy for the arts. She would have made the character into more of a zealous cartoon than McGrath’s more genial version, but the trade-off would have been a more formidable figure.
The rest of the cast varies, from Edward Herrmann’s surprisingly wan Hossefrosse to Katie Finneran’s enjoyably air-headed Florence McCrickett. Becky Ann Baker supplies Paula Ritter with such sensible vibes that it is hard to see how she got caught up in the insanity, while John Rubinstein, as Frederick Ritter, brings an interesting hard edge to his character – he treats the players with disdain, a bare-knuckle impatience. Ritter never shrugs philosophically; he’d rather bare his teeth. His set-upon hubby doesn’t think the antics of Pampinelli and company are all that funny; it is hard not to apply the same judgment to the WTF’s The Torch-Bearers.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.