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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

To the Moon — 1812 Productions at Christ Church Neighborhood House

untitled (78)Interweaving biography, especially of someone who has an indelible image and millions of extant fans, with a fictional work that borrows from the famous person’s oeuvre but is unique enough to tell a personal, original story, is a daunting feat.

Shake hands with Jennifer Childs, who I’ve often called the best theater mind in the region, She has accomplished it.

Childs’s new play, “To the Moon,” reveals facts about The Great One, Jackie Gleason, but delves more into the most gnawing yen of his most famous character, Ralph Kramden, the obsessive desire of make something of oneself. Ralph was a secure bus driver who probably made a decent, if not princely, living, but he always wanted to hit the jackpot, to come up with the one product, the one invention, the one scheme that would rocket him into the financial stratosphere. Ralph wanted to show everyone what he was made of, that Ralphie Boy had the brains and guts to hit it big. He didn’t want to live frugally in the shabbiest apartment ever seen on series television. He wanted fortune to take him to the exact spot he kept threatening to send his beleaguered wife, Alice, when she annoyed him, to the moon.

Scottie, “To the Moon’s” focal character, is an underemployed actor who also dreams of grandeur. His primary living is made by playing patients revealing symptoms that test a medical student’s acuity and bedside manner. Scottie gets to grade soon-to-be doctors on how accurately they diagnose his condition and how empathetic they were while interviewing or examining him.

The work is unfulfilling, and Scottie frequently gets in trouble for embellishing, for conversing off-script, or for taking time off from his full-time job to audition for the part he hopes will lead to stardom. His greatest desire is not to play James Tyrone or even Frank Barone. Scottie would like to land a commercial that will make him recognized in every household and pay residuals that will allow him to keep his wife, Tracie, a clerk at Macy’s perform counter, in a style he thinks she’d enjoy.

The commercial is within Scottie’s grasp. Just after he promises his almost humorless boss, Nora, he will not seek more time off to audition, he receives a call from a casting agent looking for a Jackie Gleason type for a coffee ad.

Scottie has to go. He resembles Jackie Gleason. People tell him all the time how much he looks like Jackie Gleason, how much he walks like Jackie Gleason, how much he sounds like Jackie Gleason, and how much he reminds them of Jackie Gleason.

What’s more, Scottie’s a Gleason aficionado. He adores the man. He’s read books about him and unconsciously goes into Gleason-like riffs when angry or rattled, especially if his irritation is directed at his downstairs neighbor and fellow actor, Lawton, an astutely developed rendition of Ed Norton from Gleason’s “Honeymooners” series, at least in terms of being a close friend with a capacity to irk Scottie to distraction.

Lawton proves a real pal to Scottie, who is afraid to thwart his hospital boss and works his full day instead of leaving an hour early to audition for the Gleasonish role. Meeting a bus stop, dressed as a hot dog, Lawton reminds Scottie auditions always run overtime and encourages him to go to the casting session and see if there’s one more slot to vie for the part. It turns out there is, and Scottie makes an impression, the knowledge of which makes him think the commercial and fiscal security are in the bag.

Gleason begins to pervade Scottie’s life. Among the comic traits Childs gives him is a penchant for overspending his and Tracie’s budget on things he doesn’t need and may never look at once he has them. When he becomes obsessed with Jackie Gleason, these purchases include every conceivable Gleason biography, a red smoking jacket, a leopard counterpart, cigars, fine wine, and a representative set of Gleason’s albums of instrumental selections of sentimental music to relax or be romantic with.

Scottie is inhabiting Gleason, and like his model, he is a large enough man to fit The Great One within his skin. Matters accelerate when Scottie acquires a script written for Gleason’s variety show that was never produced, that was rejected by Gleason because he may have had a bad golf day, may have been miffed at his writers, or may just not like it.

NealBoxTo Scottie, the script is a double asset. He envisions enacting it, playing all of Gleason’s scenes and doing material written expressly for his idol. And he thinks of selling it, figuring an original Gleason script in almost mint condition — The last page is missing. — will fetch a handsome dollar on the collectors’ market.

Childs thought of everything. If there never was a Jackie Gleason, or if Childs made up a fictional star Scottie could idolize, that star would not eclipse Scottie’s story about yearning and striving and waiting for the break that will catapult him from the depression he pretends to have every day while testing doctors and has contracted in real life. The beauty part of “To the Moon,” with all of its Gleason influences and references, is it’s a good, emotionally play about an unfulfilled man on an eternal brink of success. It’s warm and informed. And hilarious too!

Scottie is the star. He is one we care about. He is the one whose story has meaning to us. Childs has accomplished the extraordinary. She’s written a smart and thorough bio play while revealing a second actor’s existence and making him just as interesting and more touching as the famous Jackie Gleason.

“To the Moon” is consistently funny. In smart ways. Sources of comedy abound, but the most laudatory are the lines Childs writes for Scottie and Tracie, Scottie and Lawton, and Scottie and Nora as they go through their various discussions and conflicts. Some of the dialogue is an homage to the Gleason or “Honeymooners” style, but mostly, it consists of  good, cleverly constructed laughs that shows Childs knows her away with a joke no matter who’s telling it. She is capable of building her own humor in her own way, mixing smatterings of Ralph, Alice, and Norton with her own prodigious wit.

Childs also likes the running gag. Of the half-dozen med students Scottie tests, all are asked to diagnose the same malady, and Childs has fun with the docs’ individual personalities, ranging from fulsome to quiet to one who is aware he is being tested. Each of these docs is from a different country, and Sean Roach, who plays them all, comes up with a different accent and different demeanor depending on the land of origin. The German student, who appears twice, is especially amusing.

For Lawton, she has fun with costumes. Just as Scottie makes his money testing doctors, Lawton makes his by playing different animated characters, food stuffs, and condiments. Rather than going to his work site and dressing there, Childs has Lawton coming to the bus stop each morning wearing his latest costume. One day, he is down because he is one of three actors hired to promote a hot dog stand, and he is stuck with playing ketchup. Relating this to Scottie, he laments, “Who, if he knows food, puts ketchup on a hot dog?” Lawton is happier the next day when he has to fill in for one of the other actors and comes to the bus dressed as a mustard dispenser. To Scottie and Lawton, that constitutes coming up in the world. Lawton also shows up as a clown, as a cartoon character, and in other guises.

Tracie, besides catching Scottie dodging work, spending money on Gleason paraphernalia including a rather large telescope because Gleason was a UFO enthusiast, or agonizing over the last acting part he lost, leaves for Macy’s each morning with a fellow clerk, a male who doesn’t understand Scottie and is always needling him about his spotty work record and inattention to Tracie. There’s hints there might be an affair going on between the Macy’s colleagues, even though Roach plays Tracie’s co-worker in a foppish way that can be construed as gay.

And then there’s that fortuitously discovered Gleason script, won in a poker game against the son of one Gleason’s former writers, another, more personal, homage as Childs first conceived “To the Moon” when an 1812 Productions audience member, Greg Marx, approached her after a show to say his father, Marvin Marx, was a Gleason writer and had a trunk full of material that was unused and worthy of a look.

The alleged Gleason material, devised by Childs’s imagination (with feedback from Scott Greer and Anthony Lawton) and not from Marx’s treasure trove, helpful though it was, counts as the supreme act of blending the real with the invented, i.e. Jackie Gleason with Scottie. The integration of Reginald von Gleason, The Poor Soul, and other Gleason characters into the show is pure genius.

And again, the genius operates on many levels, a tribute to Childs as the writer who framed “To the Moon,” and to the remarkable Scott Greer who creates a complete character as Scottie and, in the persona of that character, gives the 1812 audience a slice of Gleason, a big, hefty, generous slice, just the way the generous, gregarious Gleason would want it.

It is part of “To The Moon’s” comedy that Scottie surrounds himself with accoutrements associated with Gleason. The telescope is one example. A more insane case is when Scottie buys a set of golf clubs even though he doesn’t know how to play golf. (Gleason moved his weekly CBS variety show to Florida, so he could spend his days golfing,)

We, through Scottie, learn a lot about Gleason. We find out he didn’t like to rehearse. He would approve a script on Wednesday, between two games of golf, learn the lines, and never look at it again until it came time to perform it live on Saturday night in Miami. We also hear about Gleason’s loyalty to the June Taylor Dancers, his band leader, Sammy Spear, and, of course, to the “Honeymooners” cast.

We don’t see the Gleason show in one prolonged episode. Bits, all original and featuring the “To the Moon” cast, significantly Greer, are played out an intervals during “To the Moon,” some from video recordings, others on closed circuit. These Gleason sequences are always welcome. They show Gleason as a consummate showman, an entertainer first, but also as a master comic whose timing, popping eyes, lost temper, versatile voice, and light, elegant tread in spite of his weight, contribute to making folks laugh as only a one-of-a-kind virtuoso like Gleason can. From “Away We Go” to a visit with The Poor Soul,” Gleason’s aptitude for amusing comes through.

So does Scott Greer’s.

Scott is playing a dual role, and not even in his own name. First and foremost, he’s Scottie. Then, he’s Scottie playing Gleason. That Scottie, of course, has a lot in common with Greer, whose voice, face, girth, and general appearance is in the Gleason vain.

Like Gleason, Greer can elicit many reactions, from cracking you up to breaking your heart. Like Gleason, Greer’s a large man with a soft step, flawless rhythm, and uncanny balance. Greer never crosses over to, or hints at, Scottie when he’s playing Gleason. As Scottie, however, he can point at Tracie in the exact way Ralph waggles his finger at Alice. He can inflate to more than full size, face included, and look at Lawton from the side of his eye in a way to looks as if the eye is going to become a lethal missile about to pierce Lawton’s jugular. He can turn his deep voice into whine that imitates, scolds, or mocks. And he can hesitate and stammer and do the “homina, hominas” we associate with The Great One.

The uncanny part is we accept that it is Scottie channeling Gleason and his various characters. We are so invested in “To the Moon,” it is after the bows we realize that it was all Greer, that he managed to create character of such magnitude and honesty, we give that character credit even when Scottie is being presentational.

The dynamics of “To the Moon” are incredible. From the chemistry among the cast, including master of many guises, Sean Roach, to Child’s humor, or Greer’s sincere and funny performance, the show works. Jorge Cousineau’s production design also adds to the enjoyment. It opens on a set that looks familiar, an expanded version of the Kramdens’ apartment with modern appliances replacing the ice box and the old stove and with a cleaner, more recently painted feel. An enclosed bus stop bench or patient’s gurney slide in stage left and right as needed. Best of all are the projections that grab focus when Greer’s Scottie morphs into Gleason, and various skits take place. Childs’s material is like Cousineau’s apartment, updated but realistic and true to the period in which Gleason worked in most of its elements. The vignettes Childs composed are like everything else in the play, entertaining but with a mind towards sentiment and knowing in their homage. Jackie Gleason could not have been served more lovingly while the 1812 audience is served theatrically by a play that has wit and heart, that has traditional comic elements and appeals to modern tastes (perhaps showing Gleason’s timelessness), that supplies laughs on levels ranging from visual to rimshot gag lines, and that lets you fall into sympathy with several characters the way Gleason did with Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and, significantly, when he was working solo.

Childs is the writer. Cousineau came up with a practical and artistic production design. Greer anchors an impeccable cast. The person who ties “To the Moon” together is its director, Matt Pfeiffer, who sets a tone and a pace that keeps the multiple planes on which Childs’s play work, blending integrally so that scenes flow from reality to fantasy, from the Gleason-oriented to the Scottie-centered, from solid plot to dreamy, optimistic reverie, with ease that brooks no interruption and avoids awkwardness when moods shift or one sequence is radically different in approach from the one that precedes or follows it.

Pfeiffer guided all of the performances well. Nothing seems excessive or oversized. Nothing is so subtle, it doesn’t register. Actors can be big without overdoing. Greer’s Scottie can roar like a Gleason character or go into Gleason mannerisms, but his path from Scottie to Gleason is always gradual, building from Scottie’s more natural approach to the bulging eyes, raised and thrust chin, waggling finger, and look of a bull about to charge that is so associated with Gleason.

The control lets scenes emphasize their inherent strengths. Nothing looks pushed or done only for comic effect (even when you know much, as in any comedy, is designed to be the funniest it can be). Scottie’s eruptions into Gleason look as if they’re extensions of his character and not a conscious take-off, imitation, or parody of The Great One. Even when Greer enacts Gleason, everything stays in proportion. That proportion can be broad or bombastic at times, but it is always true to its model. “To the Moon” smacks of being a show put together with thoughtfulness and care, and that thoughtfulness and care is appreciated.

Anthony Lawton and Scott Greer work so well together, you almost hope Childs writes more plays that allow them to play other comedy teams. Greer as Oliver Hardy and Lawton as Stan Laurel come to mind.

Lawton is a great sidekick in every situation, whether he’s playing Lawton, the comic foil to Greer’s Scottie, one, who like Ed Norton, is always cheerful and fairly oblivious to people who might think it’s weird to board a bus dressed as a mustard dispenser, or whether he is working with Gleason as the oft-fired writer, Marvin.

Lawton has a light everyman touch that contrasts nicely with Scottie’s constant anxiety. Lawton doesn’t let much get to him. He wants better roles, but he is content with the pickup jobs that turn him into a steady flow of condiments. Rosemarie McKelvey did a generally excellent job with all of “To the Moon’s” costumes, but she exceeded expectations with all of the get-ups she devises for Lawton to wear on a bus.

Like Norton, Lawton has his conflicts with Scottie, dust-ups that sometimes get personal, insulting, and threatening to their friendship. While Lawton can take the stares of the public, he is sensitive when his buddy denigrates his acting talent or his ambition. Anthony Lawton plays the scenes in which he and Greer’s Scottie trade barbs with a dignity that increases when Lawton realizes he is being attacked.

Tracie Higgins plays both her major roles, and various sketch sequences, with comic aplomb. She may not be as tart as Audrey Meadows’s Alice when she is exasperated with Scottie, but she makes her mind known and wonders, in spite of knowing, why Scottie risks his job, and their household income, for pipe dreams and why Scottie doesn’t think of how much cash they have to spare before he goes on his spending binges. As Scottie’s wife, Higgins seems to prefer the company and style of her fey Macy’s colleague to Scottie’s incorrigible habits, but you know the love Scottie has for her is shared and goes both ways.

Higgins is less tolerant as Nora, Scottie’s supervisor at the patient enactment center. Nora is a woman with a job to get done, and she isn’t particularly sympathetic to what she sees as Scottie’s illusion of having a lucrative acting career. She stresses responsibility and warns Scottie firmly to put his priorities straight. When he doesn’t, Nora has no compunction about firing him.

Nora, more than Tracie, brings Scottie’s reality to the fore. At the same time you know her pragmatism should be heeded, you root for Scottie to pursue his dream and work toward the acting success he craves.

Sean Roach is constantly funny as he moves effortlessly from being a straight man to Scottie’s comic, the foppish Macy’s employee, and a couple of characters in the Gleason skits. He completes a versatile and excellent cast.

Scott Greer makes the most of every one of the numerous situations he navigates as Scottie or Gleason. This is an actor in command of his multifarious talents, and you enjoy him as both Scottie and Gleason, every minute admiring the skill and humanity of this remarkable performer.

“To the Moon,” produced by 1812 Productions, runs through Sunday, May 17, at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street (American and Church), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $40 and can be obtained by calling 215-592-9560 or by visiting www.1812productions.org.

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