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Theatre in Review: As You Like It (Classic Stage Company)/The Show-Off (Peccadillo Theatre)

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Hannah Cabell in As You Like It Photo: Richard Termine.

Two classic comedies have returned to New York -- traveling light, unburdened of their laughter. Nobody takes seriously Shakespeare's famous line about the "two hour's traffic of the stage;" even Romeo and Juliet, the play from which it is drawn, usually clocks in at about two hours and forty-five minutes. (Walter Kerr once insisted that we should take the Bard at his word, but he was making a point about British Shakespeare productions that, he felt, meandered indulgently, well past the three-hour mark.) John Doyle, for once, delivers on the proposition, offering an As You Like It that only just makes it to two hours. Alas, such efficiency proves to be counterproductive.

Doyle, who usually designs his own productions, achieves this headlong pace in part by cutting the text and in part by giving his cast an open playing space -- occupied only by a piano -- over which hangs an array of pendant lamps with white globes. Thus, the instant one scene ends, another one begins, without a second between them. Mike Baldassari, the lighting designer, makes good use of the lights' color-mixing qualities, turning them green to make a sleek, high-tech Forest of Arden and creating a magical array of primary colors whenever anyone opens the rainbow-hued umbrella that gets passed around.

Underneath the lights, however, the cast races through the text, as if they're trying to catch the 10:12 to Hicksville. The lines are delivered at roughly the pace of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, an approach that strangles both the play's humor and its underlying sense of melancholy. This is especially damaging to Hannah Cabell and Kyle Scatliffe, the Rosalind and Orlando of the occasion. She is one of New York's most underrated actresses and he, having made a strong impression in musicals, shows a real flair for speaking verse, but their romance moves at such a frenetic speed that it loses all of its charm.

The production is filled with likable talents, none of them doing their best work. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is well-cast as Celia, the driest, most skeptical of Shakespeare's heroines; I'd like to see her get another crack at the role. Noah Brody at least demonstrates that both Oliver, Orlando's malicious brother, and Corin, the dimwitted rustic, are both in his range. André De Shields and Cass Morgan go through their paces as Touchstone, the clown, and Audrey, the object of his affection, but to little effect. (Morgan has a touching bit as Adam, Orlando's elderly and faithful servant, here renamed Anna.) Leenya Rideout and David Samuel are competent as the lovers Phoebe and Silvius, as is Bob Stillman as Duke Frederick, whose cruelty sets the plot in motion, and Duke Senior, who presides benevolently over its resolution. Still, the most notable thing about all of them is their rushed approach to the dialogue. The one exception to this roller-derby pacing is Ellen Burstyn as the melancholy Jaques; her rendition of the "seven ages of man" speech offers a pause that refreshes in the middle of all this running around.

There's a paradox here: The more breathless the action, the slower this As You Like It seems. Because it never gives us a minute to relax and get to know the characters, it's all too easy to tune out and simply mark time, waiting for the happy conclusion that we know will come. This approach is especially damaging to the play's humor. The only moment that gets big laughs is when a member of the audience is dragged onstage for a bit of business, an ancient piece of hokum that has nothing to do with the text. I don't care for Shakespeare productions that dawdle unnecessarily -- the recent Public Theater Mobile Unit staging of Twelfth Night moved smartly and effectively -- but you've got to leave room for the characters and their relationships to breathe; otherwise, what is the point?

Ann Hould-Ward has dressed the characters attractively, especially a pair of New Look dresses for Rosalind and Celia, but this is the least enchanting As You Like It I've ever seen, one that vanishes in relation to Daniel Sullivan's ravishing 2012 production at the Delacorte, which was almost giddy with romance and high spirits. In this trip to Arden, I'm afraid that everyone involved has lost sight of the forest for the trees.

George Kelly's The Show-Off has long been considered a classic American comedy, but, increasingly, I'm beginning to wonder why. A smash hit in 1924, it has enjoyed numerous Broadway revivals; a 1967 production, with Clayton Corzatte in the title role and Helen Hayes as his nemesis, is still fondly remembered. But a 1992 staging, with Boyd Gaines and Pat Carroll, was remarkably mirthless, and the current Peccadillo revival leaves one wondering why it should be considered a comedy at all.

The title character is Aubrey Piper, Kelly's satirical take on the all-American go-getter, promoted by the business culture of Calvin Coolidge's America. Aggressively cheerful, he is equipped with a barking laugh that sounds like a woodpecker in heat. He speaks only in clichés, working the phrase "signed on the dotted line" into almost every conversation. If you're not careful, he'll slap you on the back in a display of bonhomie guaranteed to land you in the chiropractor's office. He is Jay Gatsby's opposite number, a nightmare of hail-fellow-well-met gestures and a fabulist to boot: He toils as a lowly railroad clerk, insisting to the world, falsely, that he runs the entire department.

The action of The Show-Off is triggered by Aubrey's romance with Amy, a young office worker; he invades Amy's home like a bad case of termites, driving Mrs. Fisher, Amy's practical, no-nonsense mother, to distraction. I'm not saying that this supposedly humorous pairing of opposites can't be made to work, but I've yet to see a production where Aubrey isn't so irritating that you wonder why Mrs. Fisher simply doesn't brew him a cup of arsenic-laced tea and spare us all the tedium of his blowhard company.

Companies such as the Mint Theater -- and, sometimes, the Peccadillo -- find the charm in forgotten vintage comedies and dramas, but Dan Wackerman's production lays bare the creaks in Kelly's script. It begins with a flurry of exposition that leaves one wondering if it will ever get going. A subplot, about the youngest member of the Fisher clan and his industrial invention, is the baldest of plot devices. Weirdly, the second act takes a tragic turn, with the death of a family member -- and, even then, the characters, who should be in shock or a state of mourning, can't refrain from their supposedly humorous sniping. A last-minute attempt at redeeming Aubrey is remarkably unconvincing.

Ian Gould does everything possible to convey Aubrey's abrasive qualities, and I'm afraid that he has succeeded all too well; one of the play's most glaring flaws is its inability to explain Amy's attraction to him, which Emma Orelove's performance does nothing to ameliorate. Annette O'Toole, an actress of almost infinite resources, throws herself into the role of Mrs. Fisher, but she and Gould are a most dispirited odd couple. Tirosh Schneider makes an interesting debut as the youngest Fisher, displaying a solid grasp of period style. There's a mildly interesting subplot involving the unhappy marriage of another daughter (Elise Hudson); as played here, there is a strong suggestion that her husband (Aaron Gaines, in what amounts to a telling cameo) may be a closeted homosexual. This would be a strange point to make in a 1920s boulevard comedy, but it is a situation that Kelly, who lived for fifty-five years with his "valet," would know something about.

The production looks great, thanks to Harry Feiner's set, a faded sepia-toned photograph of a middle-class living room and parlor, and Barbara A. Bell's detailed, period-accurate costumes. Feiner also designed the lovely, understated lighting, and Quentin Chiappetta's sound design fills the auditorium at Theatre at St. Clement's with the strains of many period popular songs.

Indeed, the designers' contributions are far more compelling than the text that they have worked so assiduously to support. The Show-Off ends with the suggestion that Aubrey is here to stay; it's a punchline less likely to induce laughter than a groan of despair. -- David Barbour

(6 October 2017)

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