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In the Pinafore that’s hoisted anchor at Gunston Theatre II, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s opening chords for “We Sail the Ocean Blue” sound as jauntily nautical as ever, but except for a sailor-suited Shirley Temple”I’m terribly goddamn cute” she chirps, while tapping up a stormthere’s nothing very salty (at least in the naval sense) about the folks trilling that tune.
Which is not to say the chorus isn’t identifiable at a glance. There are a cowboy Tom Mix in his Stetson, a Marilyn Monroe in a slinky pink gown, a fruit-topped Carmen Miranda, and loads of others crooning George S. Kaufman’s lyrics to the ditty he rechristened “We Are Simple Movie Folk.” Within a few seconds, anyone who’s ever watched the Movie Channel will be in on the joke.
Back in 1945, Kaufman worked a sea change on Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, transforming it into Hollywood Pinafore so he could satirize ’40s Tinseltown without sacrificing G&S’s trademark spoofery of Victorian theater conventions. His parody is now a half-century old, but American Century Theater’s revival wastes no time establishing that celluloid (and the fact that the script’s punch lines have barely been uttered in all that time) has kept its jokes reasonably fresh.
It helps that Kaufman’s basic parallels still hold water. The nautically challenged admiral whom W.S. Gilbert characterized as “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee” finds his new Tinseltown niche as a know-nothing mogul (“He nodded his head and never said no/And now he’s the head of the studio”). Pinafore’s Captain captains a film crew from a director’s chair; lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw becomes an underpaid screenwriter, his beloved Blossom a sexy starlet. Grimy seadog Dick Dead-Eye is an obnoxious Hollywood agent, and sweet Little Buttercup is a gossip columnist, who declares in her first number, “I’m Called Little Butter-Up.”
Except that screenwriters’ salaries have skyrocketed since Kaufman was penning quips for the Marx Bros., you’d have to say the rest of that boat still floats. And with director Jack Marshall finding ways to blend in a few up-to-date jests (Rackstraw pronounces his first name “Rafe”), there’s plenty of cleverness in evidence.
Enough, in fact, to make you wish that this ambitiously elaborate revival were a trifle less elaborate, so it could show off the authorial wit to full advantage. Though a rarely produced G&S spoof would seem the perfect vehicle for a concert staging, ACT has optedno doubt with the best of intentionsto create Pinafore Studios on a balustraded, double-staircased setting, with potted palms, costumes, choreography, and full-throttle acting. The mounting is what might be called “big-on-a-budget,” andalthough it’s about as extravagant as can be managed in Gunston’s black-box spacebecause the show is about Tinseltown, where extravagance knows no bounds, it can’t help looking physically undernourished.
That the full-throated company is better equipped with vocalists than with actors is also a drawback. For every comic who makes a deft impressionBeverley Nicholson Benda as a Madeline Kahn-ish starlet, Brian Childers as her put-upon, much mistreated beau, Kathryn Fuller as the goofily presumptuous LouHedda Hopsons (a blend of gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons)there’s another company member who’s flailing away broadly at material that would be better served up with arched eyebrows and knowing grins.
Some of the songs go on a verse or two longer than their jokes warrant, but that can also be said of the G&S originals. Fidelity isn’t always a virtue. Still, the director’s affectionate approach to the material does pay off in visual gags that nicely match Hollywood Pinafore’s anarchic spiritwriters on a chain gang, for instance, tapping out screenplay rewrites in time to the music. Edu. Bernardino’s costumes are, as always, a show unto themselves (his flamboyant hats for LouHedda are especially nice), and credit is also due musical director Tom Fuller and orchestra manager Chris Thomasino for managing the music capably enough that it shouldn’t disappoint G&S fans unduly.
To fans of the Great Collaboratorand, given how often Arena Stage has mounted his plays over the years, they should be legion hereaboutsHollywood Pinafore hardly seems destined to take its place among Kaufman’s masterworks, but ACT’s mounting qualifies as one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you can’t take with youa shot at a show that’s so seldom produced, you have to figure it’s see-worthy even in less than perfect form.
David Marshall Grant’s off-Broadway hit Snakebit, which has just opened locally at Round House Theatre, is the sort of situation dramedy in which characters often seem to be conversing primarily because a playwright has thrown them together, not because they have anything much to say.
Setting the play in California probably exacerbates this problem, and making the characters actors and supermarket cashiers definitely contributes to the banter’s inconsequentiality. Grant counters the prevailing vapidity by giving his central character, Michael (Paul Morella), a more prepossessing occupation: He’s a lapsed social worker (who’s been pulled off a little girl’s case because he wants to adopt her). But the playwright then counters the countering by having Michael moon around the house in a deep funk over the gay lover who’s just left him.
The others are in less deep funks, but only because depth isn’t something they traffic in much. Jenifer (Jane Beard) has succumbed to perpetual stage fright by retreating into a career of making wheatless, dairyless, sugarless brownies that have sugar in them (don’t ask). Her husband, Jonathan (Marty Lodge), is so self-absorbed in his quest for Hollywood stardom that he barely notices either his wife’s distress or that of his recently jilted best friend. The supermarket cashier is more a plot device than a character, but that doesn’t keep him from chattering giddily on about his dreams and enthusiasms to anyone who’ll listen. He’s meant to be adorable, and, as played winningly by Ben Hulan, he pretty much is.
Because Michael is entirely passive, the others dominate the action, and late in the play, there’s rather a lot of it to dominaterevelations of infidelity and betrayal everywhere you look. Daniel De Raey’s staging is natural and unforced, frequently comic, and filled with about as much tension as Grant’s plotting will allow. The director gets fine, subtle performances from his castLodge is especially effective, loping around designer Dan Conway’s deliberately bland California rambler, growling insults (“I’m out here eating cilantro with these vultures”), and generally behaving like the caged animal that Jonathan likes to think he is.
None of which does much to lift the largely contentless conversation to a level where it might be worth listening to for its own sake. Credit the playwright with having a gift for natural-sounding dialoguea greater virtue in TV writing than in writing for the stagebut note that while his characters talk in recognizably ordinary locutions, that only makes them seem as flat and nondescript as the folks you’ve come to the theater to get away from. CP