The humor can be hard to parse (probably one of the reasons it’s so hard to do) and breaking down James Woolf’s characters and plot into their constituent parts can make it cliched, even boring – as always , it’s all in the delivery that Katherine Reilly coaxes from her casting.
We’re in a rehearsal room with a writer and director bickering around a table a bit and actors outside waiting to come in for an online reading (and, no doubt, surprised to find an audience for their audition). The writer, Anthony (there’s a running gag in there and who doesn’t love one?) explains that the piece in question includes a collage of speeches from other pieces but fits into a cohesive work of its own whole – the director, Penny, rolls her eyes at such vanity, but we’re already smiling. Then come the actors, one by one, all earnest and hopeful, while Anthony and Penny reveal more and more of the not insignificant baggage they’ve brought to the table.
What a pleasure to have on this hellish cast! Matthew Parker finds a sweet spot somewhere between Ricky Gervais and Eric Morecambe for his nightmarish but charming Anthony. His reactions as the lines are spoken are invaluable – meme material if there ever was – and his little summaries of the plays he has taken the speeches from are wonderfully well-observed satires of wannabe Noel Cowards whose work would have populated the marginal places of the 20th century with beautifully overused plots.
Gillian King showcases Parker’s puppyish desire to please with her world-weary Penny slowly coming into her own as she outwits her one-time lover with plenty of barbs and asides. And it shows that oilseed flattery is not the prerogative of men alone.
A cast of actors play the uh… actors and have a lot of fun, often appearing very different in the role than out of it and sometimes looking exactly the same. We see the cruelty of snap judgments being made on a shard of evidence and speculate what crazy world theater must be like – and then we think of the interview panels we’ve served on and remember the exact same likes and dislikes snapshots without evidence. Rather, I wonder if the Woolf wrote a primer on how not to hire staff in any environment.
Pieces like this always run the risk of being a little too complacent with their own intelligence and the last 15 minutes or so have flipped that line for me, but that doesn’t take away from an evening full of laughs lit up by beautiful performance and script intelligence. Like a musical that makes you stomp on the bus home, this comedy had me laughing all to myself on the way to Elephant and Castle – and you can’t get much more approval than that!
The Play With Speeches is at the Jack Studio Theater until October 22
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli