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Old-Fashioned Humor

Comedy Playhouse resurrects Victorian confection in 'Marriage Margin Call'

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Every theater company has its own flavor, which remains recognizable even as productions change. The flavor of the Comedy Playhouse comes through clearly in its current production, Marriage Margin Call—and patrons should be aware of what they're biting into.

For one thing, the Comedy Playhouse is not the place to go for plays with a contemporary edge. As artistic director Bruce Bieszki says in his curtain speech, the company offers "old-fashioned, light comedy with as much verve and zest as my cast and I can muster."

That is truth in advertising. Written in 1896, Marriage Margin Call has the nostalgic patina of an early black-and-white film. Its story of two sisters competing for men contains elements of farce, with secrets, disguises, mistaken identities and mismatched lovers—but these promising elements are played out at a rather relaxed tempo. And any sexuality is limited to the occasional (and daring!) peck on the cheek.

This is not too surprising for the work of Sydney Grundy, a Victorian-era English playwright who built a career on squeaky-clean adaptations of French and German plays. He also wrote the libretti for a number of operettas, including Haddon Hall with composer Arthur Sullivan, though it failed to have the success or lasting power of Sullivan's work with collaborator W.S. Gilbert.

The Comedy Playhouse is also, truth be told, not a theater at which you'll find the highest caliber of acting and design. Most of the cast has appeared in other Comedy Playhouse shows or at the Top Hat Theatre Club, and they clearly love theater, but their craft lacks polish.

The theater's pocket-size stage holds a unit set, which is adapted for each new production. For this play, designer Drew Kallen has dressed it to create a homey, slightly Art Deco drawing room.

Theatergoers should also know that the Comedy Playhouse's greatest strength is love. Yes, I know that sounds corny, but the corniness is part of it: The actors, the audience, everyone is there because they love being there. It feels like a home.

In fact, I have never been to another theater where attendees seemed so likely to make new friends. This is partly thanks to the free wine at intermission, and partly thanks to the bonhomie engendered by the ministrations of Bieszki.

Bieszki's curtain speeches before each act, during which he shills refreshments and ballyhoos the upcoming season, are a special part of a Comedy Playhouse show. With the best qualities of P.T. Barnum and vaudevillian Bert Lahr, his masterful joke-telling will remind you how entertaining a joke can really be.

Unfortunately, the rest of the evening does not maintain that comic magnetism. The play that follows Bieszki is humorous and genteel, and it generates plenty of chuckles—but few real laughs.

Marriage Margin Call (originally titled The Late Mr. Castello) is the story of three women—Mrs. Bickerdyke (Lois Lederman) and her two daughters. The title alludes to Mrs. Bickerdyke's obsession with the stock market, and much of the play's humor lies in its discussions of relationships in terms of finance.

The younger daughter, Avice (Rebecca Niesen), has a romantic nature, but despairs of ever being able to find a man of her own as long as her sister, Sadie (Denise Blum), is around.

Sadie is probably a widow, but she can't be sure: More than a year before, her husband disappeared on a hunting trip into the Amazon, and only his gun and ammunition have been recovered. Sadie is inescapably attractive to the opposite sex—but she's a cold-hearted man-eater who has left a stream of crushed suitors in her wake.

Into the Bickerdyke home come three men, all pursuing Sadie. Gray-haired Professor Wanklyn (Frank Solis) and boyish Jack Burns (Sean O'Connell) seem poorly matched from the start with the steely Sadie. Captain Wagner (Paul Hammack), on the other hand, arrives with a plan to conquer her spirit, like a Victorian tamer of the shrew.

Some of the funniest moments come after Sadie has reluctantly accepted the marriage proposal of Professor Wanklyn, and Captain Wagner tries to scare him off by impersonating Sadie's lost husband. The husband was Portuguese, and playwright Grundy wrote his character in Portuguese stereotypes now long forgotten; Hammack plays him with a touch of Antonio Banderas mixed with a splash of Ricky Ricardo.

The success of this scene points to the weaknesses of the rest of the production: First, Hammack gets to overplay this character. Not every moment in the show should be played big, of course—that would push it into camp—but in the end, big is more exciting than pleasant.

Second, for action onstage to be compelling, one character needs to be trying to get something from another: Conflict is the source of both drama and comedy, and if I had one wish for the improvement of the Comedy Playhouse ensemble, it would be to ratchet up the conflict.

Captain Wagner uses his disguise as the Portuguese husband to get something from Professor Wanklyn, and their interaction is engaging to watch. But for most of the evening, it feels as if characters are simply speaking next to each other, not speaking to each other. The dialogue is interacting, but the actors are not.

In the end, of course, it's not the acting that draws people to the Comedy Playhouse. It's the welcoming atmosphere, the camaraderie and the old-fashioned aesthetic. The company's work may not suit everyone's palate, but if it suits yours—well, have they got a treat for you.

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