Stranger Than Hollywood
The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2003
Stranger Than Hollywood
By TERRY TEACHOUT, Washington
I've been spending so much time in Manhattan aisle seats that I almost forgot there was life beyond the Hudson River. To recapture my sense of perspective, I took a train to Washington, home of the Arena Stage, a well-regarded regional theater-in-the-round that launched its new season last Friday with the world premiere of Ken Ludwig's "Shakespeare in Hollywood," a noisy, funny, thoroughly agreeable play about what happens when two of the Bard's best-known characters take a wrong turn at Albuquerque and find themselves stuck on a soundstage.
"Shakespeare in Hollywood," which runs through Oct. 19, is based on a real-life event that in retrospect seems almost as comically implausible as Mr. Ludwig's script. In 1934, Max Reinhardt brought his lavish staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the Hollywood Bowl. Jack Warner, of all people, got the idea of hiring the German emigre director to make a big-budget film version for Warner Bros. starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Dick Powell as Lysander, Jimmy Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. Released the following year, it took six months to make and cost a whopping $1.5 million ($19.4 million in 2002 dollars).
Mr. Ludwig, the author of "Lend Me a Tenor," has used that fantastic event as the pretext for an even more fantastic backstage comedy in which Oberon (Casey Biggs), Shakespeare's King of the Fairies, and Puck (Emily Donahoe), his jester and general factotum, get their spells crossed and are transported to the set of Reinhardt's film, on which hijinks are already well under way. Among other things, Jack Warner (Rick Foucheux) is sleeping with one of the leading ladies, the brassy Lydia Lansing (Alice Ripley, who sounds just like Jean Hagen in "Singin' in the Rain"), and Will Hays (Everett Quinton), Hollywood's censor-in-chief, has decided that Shakespeare's original play is too racy and needs trimming. Meanwhile, Max Reinhardt (Robert Prosky) has learned that his Oberon and Puck are indisposed and must find replacements at once so that he can start shooting. Who better than the confused but obliging time travelers who suddenly materialize on his set, already in costume?
Mr. Ludwig specializes in farce, the theatrical genre in which a Basil Fawlty-type blowhard gets his comeuppance through the near-mathematical convergence of wildly unlikely coincidences that reduce him to abject humiliation. Perfected by Georges Feydeau, classic farce relies on the rapid-fire, precisely timed comings and goings of characters who come within inches of catching one another with their pants down. (Any play whose set contains more than three doors is probably a farce.) Here, Will Hays is the blowhard, and Oberon and Puck contrive to put him on the spot by means of magical skullduggery. This being a farce, suffice it to say that things go wrong, then wronger, then wronger still, until the stage is crammed full of hair-tearing actors at their collective wit's end.
Pure farce has never been as popular in this country as it is in Europe. It is, after all, a peculiarly hopeless kind of comedy, one in which the dignified victim learns nothing from his elaborately prepared Calvary of embarrassment, and Americans are too optimistic by nature to warm to such cruel fun. Mr. Ludwig knows what to do with a slamming door, but he also knows his audiences, which is why he stirs a cupful of all-American sentiment into his oh-so-European situations. In "Shakespeare in Hollywood," for example, Oberon falls in love with Olivia (Maggie Lacey), a fresh-faced actress who just got off the bus from Iowa, thus putting himself in an impossible situation. How dare the King of the Fairies make whoopee with a mere mortal, even if she is a starlet?
If you like your farce served up cold with plenty of vinegar on the side, Mr. Ludwig's warmed-up, semi-sweet version of the Feydeau recipe will doubtless leave you boiling mad. Put aside your preconceptions, though, and "Shakespeare in Hollywood" will charm your socks off, not least because of the delightful performances of its stars. Maggie Lacey, who made her Broadway debut last year playing opposite Paul Newman in "Our Town," is adorable as Olivia, the wisecracking screwball-comedy dame who secretly longs for love. Emily Donahoe is the most winsome Puck imaginable, while Casey Biggs's Oberon is at once regal and engaging, as befits an Americanized king.
To be sure, the cast, like the play itself, is not without its weak links. Robert Prosky is wan and tired as Max Reinhardt, and Everett Quinton's camped-up Will Hays is all wrong and a yard wide. Nor has sufficient care been taken to make the Hollywood caricatures convincing: David Fendig looks and sounds nothing like Dick Powell, and Adam Richman isn't much better as Jimmy Cagney. Kyle Donnelly's million-decibel direction, effective enough in its own right, inevitably suffers from the use of an arena stage with minimal scenery. Not only does this kind of comedy need a proscenium arch to focus the frenzied energies of its players, but how can you mount a proper production of a farce in a set with no doors?
Fortunately, these are mere quibbles that need not get in the way of your having an uncomplicatedly good time. "Shakespeare in Hollywood" is no "Midsummer Night's Dream," but it is sweet, light and surprisingly tender, and it left me smiling in my Amtrak aisle seat all the way home to New York.