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Ordinarily I’d begin with some sort of description of Tabletop, Rob Ackerman’s scarily accurate comedy about the folks who make TV commercials, but taking a cue from the material, I’m instead going to urge you to buy something. Pull out your cell phone and call the box office for tickets now. There are barely a hundred seats at Round House’s black-box theater in Silver Spring, and the show is scheduled only through Halloween. If you don’t get in, trust me, you’ll regret it…and your teeth will probably be less white, your car less sexy, your meal less happy.
OK, OK, but the first part is true. Word of mouth is going to turn this hilarious little slice of workplace life into such a hit that Round House will be guilty of gross mismanagement if it doesn’t at least try to keep it open until March, when the next scheduled show will force the production to vacate the premises.
And even then, closing Tabletop will be a shame, because designers James Kronzer and Kristin A. Thompson have so persuasively turned the auditorium into a functioning TV-commercial studio that audiences may have trouble accepting it as a mere playhouse again. The designers have festooned the room with hot spotlights and cool mechanical contraptions, run electrical wires hither and yon, and aimed everything, including a huge, noisy camera seemingly left over from silent-film days, at a stage-center pile of fruit. A plastic cup atop this pile is to be filled with a viscous, slushy liquid—“creamy pink crap…It looks good. You wanna buy it”—that will get poured, repoured, and poured again during the play’s 90 minutes under the tyrannical supervision of a self-styled Cecil B. DeMille of tabletop ads. Jerry Whiddon plays snarky director Marcus as a cross between Max Bialystock and Norma Desmond. Sneering about a fresh-faced business rival, Marcus growls, “He’s lookin’ at the forest; I saw the acorns,” as his staff nods with a mixture of wariness and respect.
The workplace characters are likely to seem familiar even to those who’ve never set foot in a TV studio—the overbearing boss lady (Lee Mikeska Gardner) who strokes creative egos even as she’s slapping them around, the ambitious jack-of-all-trades (Craig Wallace) who dreams of starting his own business, the shy assistant cameraman (Todd Scofield) who yearns for a life of his own, the jaded property master (David Marks) who’s contemptuous of every aspect of a job he could do in his sleep, and the go-getting neophyte (Aubrey Deeker) who thinks way too much, offers too many suggestions, and may just be a commercial genius in the rough.
These are people for whom TV’s ads “are meat, and the shows are fuckin’ mayonnaise,” so they approach the crafting of a pair of two-second inserts in a fast-food ad with the concentration appropriate to the launching of a space capsule. Jargon flies, lights flare, the pink goop dribbles into the cup, and (in ways I’d not have deemed credible until I witnessed it myself), the audience gets sucked in and thoroughly invested. Verisimilitude counts in the theater. If you can disconnect from the event long enough to observe it, you’ll hear not just explosive laughs but also a collective intake of breath each time the camera rolls, and you’ll see patrons sitting eagerly forward to watch how the pour goes.
This is partly because Round House’s staging (by Jane Beard, who does commercial voice-overs when she’s not doing stage work) matches startling workplace realism with timing so deft you almost don’t want to laugh lest you throw it off. And partly it’s because Ackerman (who’s been a prop master for commercials, films, and TV shows, including Saturday Night Live) has penned one of the liveliest comic scripts to come along in years. It’s not perfect: An unpersuasive gay subplot could be profitably cut, and the ending is oddly abrupt and anticlimactic. Still, it’s not every playwright who can wreak stagewide havoc with a dropped apple one minute, make sensual hay with a shirt-unbuttoning the next, segue into a fiercely articulate critique of advertising, and then turn on a dime to get a guffaw with the line “This liquid is like blood, and we’re right here at the aorta of capitalism.”
Ford’s Theatre has long been at the aorta of tourism, but that may be changing. The historic stage’s new artistic director, Paul R. Tetreault, has been vowing to anyone who’ll listen that he’s going to give local audiences a reason to take another look at a venue that hasn’t shown up on any serious theatergoer’s radar screen for more than a decade. If Tetreault’s first production—a swirling, dressed-to-the-nines mounting of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker—is any indication, he’s headed in the right direction.
The show looks grand at Ford’s, its painted sets and trompe l’oeil curtains matching the proscenium arch’s faux architectural detailing and trompe l’oeil drapery. And if Matchmaker’s story of Dolly Levi’s (Andrea Martin) meddling in the 1880s household of skinflint half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Jonathan Hadary) is familiar from its musical remake, Hello, Dolly!, well, all the more reason to explore the original.
I confess, I was surprised to discover that Wilder wrote Matchmaker in 1950, long after penning Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town, and barely a decade before it was musicalized. The earlier work is so much more adventurous structurally that I’d just assumed it came later, that Matchmaker must have been the product of an inexperienced writer still learning his craft. That impression was, I now discover, based mostly on the streamlining done by Dolly’s creators, who chopped a lot out of Wilder’s original to make room for 53 minutes of music and dancing.
Turns out they jettisoned an entire act and a number of intriguingly caustic characters, including a quasi-Shavian layabout who regards employers as disposable conveniences and a marvelously eccentric maiden aunt who goes by the name of Flora Van Huysen, who champions love in the face of obstacles as feverishly as Dolly champions finessing the obstacles. It’s easy to understand why Carol Channing and subsequent musical Dollys wouldn’t have relished sharing the stage with such an extravagant creature. As played by a sputtering, deliriously funny Lola Pashalinski at Ford’s, Flora arrives regally in the final scene, stealing it and very nearly the whole enterprise from the perfectly able performers who’ve been entertaining the crowd all evening.
Flora also helps make the second half of the show more interesting than you might expect from the first, which takes a while to get up to speed. Martin’s droll, understated Dolly Levi doesn’t arrive until about midway through Act 1. And though she’s a lot of fun, chewing on lines in ways that suggest she finds them almost too delicious to spit out, she isn’t all that present during the sequences involving Vandergelder’s clerks and the pretty hatmakers they squire around New York. They’re all pleasant enough, but Wilder’s given them pretty standard farcical situations, and Mark Lamos’ staging follows the conventions conventionally.
The director makes up for a lot with his last scene, however, and he also gets some mileage out of an earlier moment in which the milliners ask the clerks to sing for them, and the clerks protest that they know only sad songs. The setup is played strictly for laughs, but at the performance I attended, a hush fell over the house as the first stanza of the ballad “Tenting on the Old Campground” registered with the crowd. The song dates to the Civil War, making it appropriate both for Ford’s and for the play’s 1880s setting. And it’s intriguing to think of the effect the song would have had on the play’s first audiences in 1950, as the Korean War raged, and to note how it was registering with a crowd with Iraq on its mind. “Many are the hearts,” sang the actors, “that are weary tonight, waiting for the war to cease.” A nice, unexpected moment to find in a farce. If Ford’s can manage a few more like it, my guess is that serious theatergoers will start coming back.CP