For fans of the Comedy Playhouse, a trip down The Dover Road is well worth taking.
The company again draws on its pool of enthusiastic amateur performers to produce this charming 1921 play about two couples "running away," and it's by far the most successful production the Playhouse has mounted since opening its doors this spring.
The troupe may simply be hitting its stride, but the play also benefits from a well-cast ensemble, a slyly subversive script by A.A. Milne and the onstage presence of the ringmaster himself, Bruce Bieszki.
Bieszki is the Playhouse's Johnny Carson, its Lawrence Welk, its Carol Burnett. In his curtain speech on the night I attended, Bieszki spoke even more earnestly than usual. Yes, he polished off a couple hoary jokes in perfect style, but he grew serious as he mentioned that new patrons, before buying tickets, often ask whether his plays' content is "clean."
"A theater has a sacred trust with its audience," he said. At the Comedy Playhouse, he went on, you can expect "two hours of a nice time, a friendly time, a pleasant time." And that is exactly what he offers—no more, no less.
In fact, The Dover Road makes the argument that a play can be adult, sophisticated and complex without being scandalous.
Milne (1882-1956) is best remembered as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, but he also had a successful and prolific career as a novelist, humorist, poet, screenwriter and playwright. His stage writing has the sweetness of J.M. Barrie and the flawed, human characters of George Bernard Shaw. Unlike those contemporaries of Milne's, his plays have largely been forgotten.
Spoiler Alert! Part of the pleasure of The Dover Road is the surprise of its little twists, so if you are inclined to attend, you may want to stop reading now.
Produced in the Playhouse's low-budget, homespun style, the play begins simply enough: Leonard (Drew Kallen) and Anne (Cristin Phibbs) are running away together to France. On the road to the English port town of Dover, their car breaks down, and they're forced to lodge at the home of the eccentric Mr. Latimer (Bieszki).
Mr. Latimer not only has been expecting his guests; he knows all about them. He's aware that Leonard is abandoning his wife for Anne, and insists that the couple remain at his manor for a week to make sure they'll really be happy together. All Anne really knows about Leonard, after all, is that "he's been married once, and made a damned hash of it."
Unknown to the pair, Mr. Latimer has been playing host to another couple—Leonard's wife, Eustasia (Tina Swope), who is running away with her new love, Nicholas (Sean O'Connell). Nicholas is a hen-pecked milquetoast, and after spending extended time alone with Eustasia, he has already found his ardor cooling.
The plot machinations play out just as you'd expect: The two mismatched couples split up and begin to realign under Mr. Latimer's beneficent tutelage. Leonard catches a cold, and Eustasia is more than willing to nurse him back to health, while Anne begins to take an interest in Nicholas, who is only too happy to reciprocate.
But here, Milne begins to pull the rug out from under the familiar story. Anne has only befriended Nicholas in order to borrow money for train fare home. Eustasia turns out to be as unbearable now as she was before. The upshot is that Leonard and Nicholas decide to travel to France together, without any women at all. Even Mr. Latimer gets his heart broken a little.
In the end, when the trusty butler (Mike Saxon) declares that this was one of Mr. Latimer's most successful projects, it makes you ask exactly what the objective has been—for Mr. Latimer or, indeed, for the play itself. In what has seemed to be a highly conventional work, Milne offers no easy answers or quick redemption for his characters.
This ultimately complex story is leavened with a great deal of warm humor, which the cast is perfectly suited to deliver.
Kallen captures just the right egocentric bluster for Leonard, punctuating his thoughts with little huffs and stammers. O'Connell, as Nicholas, has an eccentric stage presence that he uses to great advantage, opposing his character's inarticulateness against his own innate comic timing.
Saxon, on the other hand, wins laughs as the butler simply by remaining impassive while suggesting his inner thoughts with mere movements of his eyebrows. And Swope, as the über-nurturing Eustasia, hits just the right note of cloying, calculated sweetness. She baby-talks in the third person, and her weeping sounds like rusty nails on a chalkboard.
Anne is the play's most convoluted role, seemingly changing her personality several times. Phibbs isn't able to reconcile the parts into a single characterization, but she's always fully committed to who Anne is in a given moment: shy, confidant, seductive, cold.
Of course, Bieszki brings his considerable skills to Mr. Latimer; he's part child and part fairy godfather. In the scene in which Mr. Latimer first gets both couples in the same room together, Bieszki demonstrates some of the most spectacular comic mugging I have ever seen. But in the moment when Mr. Latimer allows himself to become infatuated with Anne, we also get to see the human beneath the clown.
The Dover Road is not a fast-paced, laugh-a-minute comedy, but it is a pleasant, leisurely stroll, with plenty of smiles and good company.