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A CurtainUp Review
The Play's the Thing
By Jacob Horn

"Never mean well — it's fatal."
The Play's the Thing
Alexis Kelley and Brian Linden
(Photo credit: Michael Abrams)
There's nothing like a grand romantic gesture, and everyone loves surprises. So, when composer Albert Adam, accompanied by his dramatist collaborators Sandor Turai and Mansky, shows up a day early to meet his fiancé at a castle on the Italian Riviera it seems like a lovely way to start the weekend. But when Albert overhears her in the next room over with another man, even though she kicks him out after a few kisses, he is (understandably) beside himself. This, in turn, leaves Turai and Mansky worried that Albert won't be able to produce the music they need to complete their latest work. What to do? The Play's the Thing!

The title of P.G. Wodehouse's 1926 adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Jatek a Kastelyban (The Play at the Castle) takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet in which the Danish prince declares, "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king", as he plots to use a play in order to expose his uncle's guilt for the murder of his father.

In The Play's the Thing, which receives its latest production from The Storm Theater, the concept is flipped. Turai (Joe Danbusky), eager to cheer Albert (Jeff Kline) up quickly so he can resume composing, decides to convince the boy that he overheard nothing more than the rehearsal of a scene from a play.

Spurning the assistance of his collaborator Mansky (Andy Allis) he stays up through the night writing a script that incorporates all that they heard through the wall. The next morning, he calls in Albert's fiancé Ilona (Alexis Kelley) and her former lover Almady (Brian Linden) to confront them with a choice: perform the play, or deal with the consequences of their actions.

It's a promising premise, and the play doesn't disappoint. It is consistently engaging and entertaining, though it never quite reaches the farcical heights to which it seems to aspire. While the setting, the costumes and the social mores of the play's world are certainly of another time, The Play's The Thing, with its focus on love and theater, has aged well since 1926.

Director Peter Dobbins is to be praised for solid direction across the cast. This is a play in which some characters are simply much better developed than others, but the actors all do their roles justice to the fullest extent allowed to them by the script. The production maintains steady momentum,even at moments when the first two acts seem to exist more in anticipation of the final one than for their own merits.

As Turai, Danbusky is the clear center of the show. He gracefully orchestrates events with a self-assured swagger that charms even while narrowly skirting the outer limits of pomposity. For anyone familiar with the film adaption of the board game Clue, he'll remind them of Tim Curry's character: he is always several steps ahead of the other players in the game, and absolutely knows it.

Turai is also a vital link in connecting several smaller ensembles within the cast. One moment he's reassuring Mansky and Albert, another he's coercing Ilona and Almady. Look again and he's dealing with the castle's staff (Spencer Aste, James Henry Doan, and George Goss).

The most captivating scenes center around Ilona and Almady — for example, when Turai confronts them about their rendezvouz or when they perform the play-within-a-play to fulfill Turai's plan.

Kelley and Linden make an especially enjoyable team as Ilona and Almady, with great comic chemistry and a wonderful ability to make fun of actors. Never mind their elaborate deception of Albert with even the moment of their kiss is marked by fakeness and insincerity. As Almady makes advances, Ilona protests that she loves Albert, but he puts on a show of despondency and weeps until she comforts him. That's important, because otherwise the play's central deception would be much crueler and less funny. As it is, Ilona is certainly guilty of a lapse in judgment, but her heart remains pure. While Almady's actions are truly dishonorable, Linden miraculously manages to eke out some sympathy for the character.

Josh Iacovelli's set is sprawling, at least relative to the small Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, which makes for a highly immersive experience. Having the audience arranged around the stage in four small clusters of seats works well. However, it does sometimes makes one so focused on the action in one part of the theater (as during the play-within-a-play) that it's easy to miss out on the reactions of the other performers.

As mentioned earlier, The Play's the Thing's script never quite reaches its intended comedic heights and there are parts that make very little sense when you think about them too much. But, textual gripes notwithstanding, The Storm Theatre offers a well-acted and well-directed production that is highly polished and enjoyable, which makes this Play quite the thing indeed.

The Play's the Thing
by Ferenc Molnar
Adapted by P.G. Wodehouse
Directed by Peter Dobbins
with Joe Danbusky (Turai), Andy Allis (Mansky), Jeff Kline (Albert), Alexis Kelley (Ilona), Brian Linden (Almady), Spencer Aste (Dwornitschek), James Henry Doan (Mr. Mell), George Goss (Footman)
Set Design: Josh Iacovelli
Costume Design: Molly Mastrandrea
Lighting Design: Michael Abrams
Sound Design: Marisa J. Barnes
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission
The Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, 405 West 114th Street
From9/20/2013; opening 9/29/13; closing 10/26/2013
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30; Saturdays (October 5-26 only) at 2:30; Wednesdays (October 16 and 23 only) at 7:30.
Tickets are $25
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 9/26/2013 performance
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