Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Theater review: Rover Dramawerks’ It Runs in the Family is a high-energy, high-functioning farce
It will wear you out. In a good way.
PLANO I'm always a wee bit nervous when attending a farce. Their very nature – highly-exaggerated, absurd, and extravagant – can wreak havoc with the artistic vision of even the best-intentioned of directors. Sets and costuming can be garish and overblown. Acting can be wooden or overwrought. Happily, Director Ashley White does not fall prey to any such blunders with her work on It Runs in the Family at Rover Dramawerks.
Written by master British farceur, Ray Cooney, It Runs in the Family's plot revolves around Dr. Mortimore, a pretentious neurologist who is preparing to present a career-making speech at an important medical conference. Moments before his scheduled appearance, his former nurse and lover arrives (after “18 years and 9 months”) to inform him that their liaison produced a son, an apparently delinquent son who is rampaging through the hospital at that very moment, desperately looking for his father. As Mortimore tries to keep both his marriage and career intact, he turns to progressively more elaborate (and hilarious) deceptions and eventually weaves a web of outrageous lies so convoluted that even he begins to lose its thread.
Dr. Mortimore is played by veteran comedian Chris Dover who shines as the man who is desperately trying to preserve some modicum of dignity as his fabrications begin to unravel in every direction. Dover has neuroses down to an art form. His timing, droll delivery and increasingly panicked paroxysms make the good doctor's distress palpable and command sympathy for an otherwise somewhat unsympathetic character.
Recent Chicago transplant Joe Messina plays Dr. Hubert Bonney, Dr. Mortimore's involuntary partner in crime. And what a partner he is. Messina's gestures and posture convey Bonney's eagerness to please, and Messina’s facial expressions are priceless. The nuances of his smallest gestures are perfect and his comedic timing is impeccable. Throw in his obvious musical and dancing talents and you have a force to be reckoned with.
The Messina/Dover duo truly runs the show – the actors play wonderfully off one another – whether they're both quietly trying to solve Mortimore's predicament or engaging in cockamamie antics such as attempting to hide events unfolding on a window ledge from the prying eyes of a curious police sergeant.
Surrounding this superb acting pair are an assortment of similarly talented actors performing in a well-coached English dialect and playing such supporting characters as Mortimore's seemingly unsuspecting wife, an irascible police sergeant, Mortimore's long-lost paramour, Mortimore's equally long-lost son, a befuddled patient, and a bevy of work colleagues, including his gruff boss, bumbling fellow doctor, and robust head nurse. Each works to move the plot along flawlessly with nary a hiccup in the fast-paced action and rapidly-delivered verbiage.
Leslie, Mortimore's estranged son, is played by Glenn Averoigne who has the impressive ability to instantly switch between menacing hoodlum and simpering softie. Averoigne's intense gaze and body language, whether aggressively stalking someone of whom he is suspicious or fervently embracing someone he is excited to meet, convey the character's drive for connection. In short, he is extremely believable as a young, slightly confused man searching for his father. And he makes the other characters' alternating sympathy and dread of him believable, too.
Both Heather Walker-Shin as Rosemary, Mortimore's wife, and Carol Becker as Jane Tate, Mortimore's former mistress, are well-cast. Walker-Shin's carriage contains the correct dose of patrician snobbery and her delivery has just the right amount of lilt to make you wonder whether she is truly perplexed by her husband's antics or is playing along in an attempt to perplex him further. Becker plays Jane Tate as fairly opposite of Rosemary - less Kensington High Street and less in control of the on-stage antics. Becker's widened eyes, interlaced fingers and tentative smoothing of rumpled clothing make her seem hesitant, but she is also quite capable of strength when necessary, as she proves at various times with emphatic voice and resolute stance.
Matron, played by Kelly Moore Clarkson, is no-nonsense and wonderfully witty. While requests made of her are first met with incredulity, argument, and a stiff shake of the head, once she commits, she dives into the action with determination and fervor. Further, Clarkson's initial frozen alarm and then body movement make a scene involving some innuendo between Matron and Dr. Bonney particularly memorable.
Chris D'Amico's Sir Willoughby Drake, Mortimore's boss, is played with just the right amount of indignation and supercilious pomposity. D’Amico’s stiff-backed, high-chinned posture and gruff impatience eventually give way to eye-rolling acceptance and unexpected joviality. Throughout, facial expressions are excellent and timing is perfect.
Ryan Glen, as Dr. Mike Connolly, bumbles about the stage, adding humor with his abrupt entrances and costuming. Glen has mastered the slightly stiff-necked, quizzical head-tilt, and uses the move regularly as he moves through the scenes, oblivious to the eccentricities taking place around him.
Eddy Herring plays the Police Sergeant, a role with some excellent moments of its own. Herring's character grows more irate throughout the course of the show, while his facial expressions clearly convey both the character's suspicion and confusion. Herring is favored with one of the most memorable moments in the play while sharing the stage with Dr. Bonney, and his facial expressions and tensed body make the audience roar with laughter.
Sister and Mother are not roles with a lot of meat to them, as written, but they are played exceptionally well by Amy Brown and Robin Attaway, respectively. Brown's Sister is exasperated, impatient and vaguely menacing. Her annoyed sighs, intense stares, and impatient foot tapping perfectly convey her irritation. Attaway's characterization of Bonney's Mother gives just the right amount of strength to make the other characters' assertions concerning her dominance credible, while her gentle, loving gestures toward Leslie convey maternal instincts.
Ivan Jones as Bill, the patient involuntarily injected into the mix-up, steals moments of every scene he is in. In fact, the audience often giggles at Bill's antics on one side of the stage even while major plot twists are occurring on the other.
The play’s entire setting is in the doctor's lounge of the hospital so scene changes are unnecessary. Set Designer Ellen Mizener has done an excellent job with this room, perfectly capturing that distinctly British institutional yet homey feel. Chairs are of the wingback variety, the liquor cabinet and desk are decidedly antique, and large windows are draped with chintz curtains. Nods to British royalty are given by unobtrusive framed photos of the Queen and Princess Diana. Perhaps most importantly, a multitude of hospital-style doors exist to give the characters many escape exits.
Lighting is minimal, consisting primarily of standard lighting for the doctor's lounge. Dim white light reminiscent of a grey winter's day is also utilized when the window drapes are opened. Lighting Designer Bryan Oliviera implements this so effectively that you can almost feel a collective shiver from the audience.
Similarly, Philip Chalut's sound design is simple, mainly revolving around the sound of wind rushing outside the window when it is opened and a ringing phone on the desk. Both are timed perfectly. In certain scenes, however, the action is supposed to be interrupted abruptly by the ringing phone, but the phone cannot be easily heard over the din of the on-stage capers.
Costume Designer Lindsey Humphries clothes all of the actors effectively, from Rosemary Mortimore's brightly-colored day suits to Sir Drake's stiff-collared shirts to Leslie's punk jacket, high-waisted jeans, and Mohawk. It's also a nice touch that costuming denotes who is on-duty and who is off. In addition to regular grab, a slew of costuming and wigs allowing some of the men to dress as women are required, and these are similarly well-chosen for the actors. In fact, Joe Messina looks particularly fetching as a female which I can only attribute to excellent costume design.
Half the fun of this particular play exists in the unexpected physical comedy that pops up throughout it. Rover Dramawerks' cast deftly employs this physical comedy with impeccable subtlety and timing to create fast-paced, ludicrous, entertaining nonsense that keeps the audience roaring. The energy that it takes to keep up the pace must be enormous, and they deserve big crowds in which to deliver that energy. Go and see. And I dare you not to laugh.
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