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Theatre in Review: The Roundabout/Fossils (59E59)

Top: Hugh Sachs, Emily Laing. Bottom: Luke Murphy, Adam Farrell. Photos: Carol Rosegg

The second wave of offerings in this year's Brits Off Broadway festival are rather lighter in tone -- and considerably weaker -- than their predecessors. Although he has a least one charming comedy (When We Are Married) to his credit, J. B. Priestley is usually remembered as the author of the moral detective story An Inspector Calls, as well as Dangerous Corner and Time and the Conways, dramas with tricky temporal schemes. He wrote The Roundabout in 1931, imagining it as a vehicle for the actress (and his sometime lover) Peggy Ashcroft. Whether their affair cooled or Ashcroft looked at the script with a critical eye, I cannot say. What is clear from the current production is that The Roundabout is a very mild evening of drawing room skirmishes, the sort of thing that Coward, Maugham, and Frederick Lonsdale handled far more deftly.

This is the old one about the country house invaded by chaos-spreading interlopers, in this case the home where Lord Kettlewell lives in relative solitude and peace. Priestley keeps things topical: Like so many titled Britons in the years between the wars, Lord Kettlewell is shedding money at an alarming rate. He isn't alone in this: One of his unwanted guests, Lady Knightsbridge, keeps herself afloat by purchasing furnishings from her hosts and reselling them at a profit; she also puts nouveau riche house-hunters together with her friends who can no longer manage both the country estate and the house in town, pocketing a finder's fee.

To add to Lord Kettlewell's mortification, his daughter, Pamela, whom he barely knows -- she has always lived with his long-estranged wife -- shows up, direct from her stay in Communist Russia. She is a card-carrying Red, and she brings with her Comrade Staggles, whose contempt for the upper classes doesn't prevent him from throwing himself at every available lady of leisure. Further complications are provided by the arrivals of Hilda Lancicourt -- who is "ready to make a devil of a scene at a moment's notice," and who wants Lord Kettlewell for herself -- and Rose, Lady Kettlewell, who appears to do a bit of kibitzing of her own.

Much of the strife is fomented by Pamela, a certified terror, who enjoys stirring up situations and planting ideas in the minds of the unsuspecting. (This would have been Ashcroft's role and it is fun to think what she might have made of it.) The idea of a Red invasion of the family manor is moderately amusing, especially when Pamela is recounting her experience in the Soviet workers' paradise. ("The last job I had was doing psychotechnical research and proletkult leisure organization in the Red October Candy Factory.") No play of this sort can function without a guest who, cocktail in hand, sits back and comments acidly on the action; his name here is Churton Saunders, and he livens up the first act no end. Lord Kettlewell says that his wife didn't leave him, adding, "We simply agreed to separate." "But," observes Saunders, "she agreed first, didn't she?" When Lord Kettlewell, fretting about meeting Pamela, says, "God knows what nonsense Rose has put into her head by this time," Saunders silkily replies, "You can't put nonsense into girls' heads. They have their own nonsense-making plant there, always working at full pressure."

But, a few bright remarks aside, this is a strictly by-the-numbers affair: Couples are arranged and rearranged. Pamela sheds her proletarian garb, appearing stunning in an evening gown. An eligible young man is produced at just the right moment. And Lord Kettlewell, freed of various embarrassing entanglements, begins to wonder if marriage is really so bad after all. Hugh Ross' production could use some additional layers of high-comedy style, but it gets the job done, and there are a few standouts. Emily Laing gives Pamela an appealingly screwball spin. Hugh Sachs treats each of Saunders' laugh lines as if it were a scone covered with clotted cream, devouring it whole. Richenda Carey makes something amusing out of Lady Knightsbridge's avid eye for a cash commission. Derek Hutchinson appeals as the family's faithful butler, who plays the lottery, with results that further shake up the household.

Polly Sullivan's design is on the dowdy side; her set doesn't suggest a country manor interior and her costumes often left me wondering in which decade the action was taking place. David Howe's lighting is clean and uncluttered, however, and Matthew Strachan provides some nicely atmospheric original music. The Roundabout will probably keep audiences amused for its brief run at 59E59, but it is a lesser example of its genre. "We're living in a time of great social confusion," remarks the butler, but, really, in this play events move a little too predictably.

Far more imaginative is Fossils, in which the members of the troupe known as Bucket Club blend science and family drama to sometimes intriguing effect. Nel Crouch's script centers on Vanessa, who, in her late twenties, is already a star in the field of evolutionary biology, conducting research into the relationship between the coelacanth, a fish found off the coast of South Africa, and its long-dead forbears. Vanessa is a little too tightly wound, admitting that, for an evening's entertainment, "I like to argue with creationists on Internet forums."

Vanessa is also haunted by the disappearance of her father, himself a scientist, who became obsessed with proving the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. When yet another sighting of this mythical creature stirs up the media, Vanessa at first refuses to comment -- but soon she and Dominic, a lab assistant (who thinks they are on their way to an academic conference), hit the road to Loch Ness, where family revelations await.

The three-person cast makes a tight, cohesive ensemble. Helen Vinten captures Vanessa's fierce professionalism as well as her unappeased longing for a sense of closure with her father. Adam Farrell is appealing as Dominic, who knows he isn't in Vanessa's league intellectually, but who quietly yearns for her anyway. Luke Murphy provides solid support as Myles, another assistant, and in several other roles. The trick here is the highly presentational production, in which the actors take turns delivering the narration. There are three tables on stage, two of which contain clear plastic water tanks. As a tribute to the research of Vanessa and her colleagues, the stage is littered with plastic toy dinosaurs; each time an actor takes on a minor role, he or she picks up one of the dinos, using it to represent that character. A toy boat in one of the tanks stands in for the vessel on which Vanessa and Dominic make a fateful trip.

It's all very clever, but, as Fossils goes on, it's hard to escape the feeling that the members of the company are more interested in their storytelling method than in the story they have to tell. This seems especially so in the last fifteen minutes or so, which, frankly, are hard to follow. There's also something rather dull and conventional about the idea of the hard-nosed woman of science who is really a sad little girl underneath the professional exterior. Thus, a piece that begins on an engaging note gradually loses interest.

Crouch, who also directed, has gotten basic, but useful, scenery and costumes from Rebecca Jane Wood, and reasonably sensitive lighting from Joe Price. David Ridley's sound effects -- including a turbulent storm -- are nicely done; he also contributed original music, including a couple of songs that seem like just another theatrical device. Fossils is the work of some very talented young people who need to hone their narrative skills. Not every extra-theatrical device is an inspired choice. -- David Barbour

(3 May 2017)

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