All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Oops! I’m behind for a change. Too much attention to creative writing is the culprit, but it’s time to catch up with what’s happening in local theater. “Quickies” will begin to appear in this space. The entertaining Curio production of Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” comes first. Here’s “Baskerville” and “The Book of Mormon.” Now the excellent McCarter rendition of “A Christmas Carol” has joined the list. Other reviews will join it as they are ready. Expansions of some reviews will follow. Keep checking!
THE BALD SOPRANO, at Curio Theatre, Philadelphia, through Saturday, December 19 — Idle chatter, banal dinner party conversation, the mores attached to social events, and the seriousness with which we listen, or not, are apt targets for the whizbang, commentating mind of Eugène Ionesco, who got the idea for “Soprano’s” mishmash of messages while taking a course in English and noticing the utilitarian, but useless, content of the phrases he was learning. Most of what we hear in Tina Howe’s less zany, more formal than usual translation is free association gibberish, starting with the ever-expanding length of time a family friend is reported to be dead in Ionesco’s contentious initial dialogue between a married couple appropriately given the Everyman name of Smith. At Curio, director Charlotte Northeast takes her cue from the conventionally domestic middle class home in which Ionesco sets his piece. Curio’s “Soprano” plays with the pace and tone of a drawing room comedy. Precise normality and jaunty British spirits offset any non-sequitur or fractured phraseology. Northeast opts for an atmosphere of normality, typical rooms and well-mannered behavior that contrast with sharp but intrinsic eccentricities, such as the carpet in the comfy, chintz-laden Smith, no Martin, no Smith, living room whooshing past the parameters of the set until a flap of it comes to a point that blocks the audience from using one of Curio’s aisles. Northeast’s characters show no frustration or rancor as they try to hammer home their trite points. Even when one Smith or Martin contradicts someone, or repeats what another has just friend with a different inflection that might indicate anything from wonder at an idea or a sarcastic response to it, there’s gentility that adds to the comedy. The absurdity isn’t so much in the words as how much characters behave as if all is going smoothly and that brisk repartee is flowing. The comedy comes when you realize much conversation between the Smiths and Martins, separately or as a foursome, sound like things you hear all of the time. Their conversation from the blue might be closer to the Thanksgiving jabber you endured and are about the experience again on Christmas. Ionesco is a genius at mining the bizarre within the ordinary, and Northeast seems to take her cue from that. The conversation sounds less like arrant nonsense and more like common inanity. The Smiths of Rachel Gluck and C.J. Keller carp but with civility and decorum. The Martins of Maria Konstantinidis and Ken Opdenaker seem more in tune with one other while suggesting a judgmental snobbery, again with civility and decorum that dictates dinner party behavior and the small talk, and temper-control, it requires. Eccentricity escalates because careful normality remains constant. The comedy comes from watching all evolve, actually listening for content within the banter, and recognizing how often a Smith or Martin sounds like your Aunt Gertrude or cousin Mike. Ionesco is too smart, wily, and devilish just to vary the same verbal tango. He leavens the occasion with intrusions from the Smiths. maid, interchangeable with the Martins’ maid, Ionesco’s ending suggesting we are all, in our banality interchangeable, and with a flirtatious, egoistic fire chief who is more distinctively individual from the others but more because of his panache, élan, and excited assertions about his view of life and love. Those assertions make no more sense than anything uttered once we first hear of Bobby Watson’s death in Mr. Smith’s first comment, but Brandon Pierce, more admirable and amazing with each varied performance he gives, makes the first chief’s drivel into an aria that makes the Curio stage more jolly and bright. Aetna Gallagher also scores as the maid prone to kitchen accidents and in love with the fire chief who has set her heart as much aflame as she has set the Smiths’ frequently incinerated roasts. Gallagher, by being broad and effusive in her monologue, offers comic relief from the constant, but physically staid, approaches to comedy. Pierce actually makes you listen to his rambles because he’s so compelling an actor, you think his fire chief might actually have something substantive to say (in spite, as in my case of being familiar with “The Bald Soprano” for 40 years!). Northeast’s production entertains on many levels. Besides the visit to late 1940’s England, where manners and more are more set than they are today, she treats us to visual commentary on three strategically places TV monitors broadcasting slides that offer both geographic information about London and some contemporary context to notions Ionesco’s maunderings suggest. Yes, even the currently ubiquitous Donald Trump makes an appearance, as does British royalty, and scenes and portraits from British history, pop and political. That frame-obliterating carpet is just one witty idea to be found in Paul Kuhn’s gray, gray set that is lend color by video slides and an occasional piece of furniture. Best of all, Ionesco offers real, if comically entertaining, insight on the careless and constant cacophony that passes for communication, but is just repetitive inanity, platitudinous twaddle, and verbal noise for its own sake. Especially at a dinner party or breakfast chat in which everyone is expected to participre. He underscores the sad, if comically expressed, fact that much might be said, but little is interesting, and less is important. The underlying tragedy Ionesco, via Howe and Curio, makes so clear is we miss or talk around the important while dwelling on platitude, rhetoric, and populist garble. Overall Grade: A-. Obtain tickets by calling 215-525-1350 or by visiting www.curiotheatre.org.
BASKERVILLE — Philadelphia Theatre Company, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, December 27 — Same show. Same director. Same basic production. Different results. The Philadelphia Theatre Company presentation of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” remains entertaining and blessedly makes Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery at least an equal partner to comic theatrical mayhem, but it finds neither the bite nor the hilarity Amanda Dehnert’s staging did when it appeared at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre last spring. One reason is the absence of the unique actor Stanley Bahorek who can be zany and sinister at the same time and who gave Dehnert’s staging extra size and additional dollops of both mischief and mayhem. Bahorek, until recently doing well in a staid part as John Newton’s stabilizing confidante in Broadway’s “Amazing Grace,” brought wifty dimension to Ludwig’s piece that doesn’t show up in PTC’s staging. The fault is not Adam Green’s. He does fine, creative work in a number of roles, including that of Stapleton, the naturalist with several dark secrets, and deserves credit for his performance and its entertainment value. The problem is Bahorek was so dominating, he’s a hard act to follow. While seeing PTC’s “Baskerville,” I kept telling myself, “This is a different production. Get your mind off the previous one and concentrate here.” Easier said than done. With so much else being identical, it was hard to forget the hilarity Bahorek contributed at McCarter even while I was appreciating and enjoying the work of Green, an actor I also think is a boon to the newest generation of theater. “Size” and “dimension,” two words I’ve used so far, also come disruptively into play. The McCarter stage is bigger than PTC’s. Therefore, when furniture rolled in, as if with a mind of its own, from the wings, or flower petals rained from the flies to botanize the moors where “Baskerville” is set, the effect seemed witty and miraculous. In the confines of the Suzanne Roberts, the arrival and desks and chairs seemed merely efficient, and the few sunflower plants let loose from the heavens seemed paltry and unfulfilling. Again, if I was seeing Dehnert’s “Baskerville” for the first time, these clever effects may have been more charming or exciting. They look small and sparse only in comparison. So, let’s let comparison cease. PTC’s “Baskerville” has plenty of merits, much more than it has liabilities. It’s time to dwell on them. From PTC’s point of view, beyond time. “Baskerville” succeeds where many of the farcical representations of classical mysteries since Maria Aitken’s “The 39 Steps” have failed because it retains both the baby and the bathwater. Ludwig, and more importantly Dehnert, realize there’s a mystery for Sherlock Holmes to unravel, and they keep it in the forefront while acknowledging some of the eye-rolling plot twists in Conan Doyle and presenting them comically. Ludwig’s is a smart script. Laden though it is with jokes and gags, well-crafted jokes and gags, it keeps you eagerly wanting to know why one member of the Baskerville clan died of fright on a secluded part of the moors and how another. more skeptical about danger Baskerville, can be protected from suffering the same fate. Dehnert retains the wonder of the mystery and doesn’t occlude and obliterate it with farcical business the way Matt Pfeiffer’s production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” did at Lantern Theater last spring. You stay curious about what happens while being treated to cunningly considered comedy that makes intelligent fun of the multiple clues and false leads Conan Doyle puts in Holmes’s way. Dehnert is deft in mixing farce and suspense. She creates times you genuinely fear for the safety of one or another character and makes you think along with Holmes and Watson about how the violent crimes on the moors were perpetrated. Dehnert keeps all lively and sharp. She is abetted by a fine cast. Turning comparison positive, Ron Menzel is more engaging, more heroic Sherlock Holmes than his Princeton counterpart. Menzel neatly combined irony and dignity in his portrayal. He was a Holmes of stature yet able to make fun of himself and the work of a detective. Menzel was sharp at reading Holmes’s line and eked every ounce of meaning, literal and droll, out of them. Likewise, matinee-idol handsome Henry Clarke gave dimension to Doctor Watson, emphasizing how his gentlemanly demeanor and ready courage offset any of the bumbling that has become associated with character via Nigel Bruce. Menzel and Clarke create a pair of detectives you can respect and who seem likely to crack the Baskerville case. Adam Green might feel a little slapped by the earlier praise of Stanley Bahorek, but he certainly adds to the quality of Ludwig’s storytelling and Dehnert’s staging. He is a less distracted, more attentive Stapleton than Bahorek. You can see his wariness and jealousy through the disinterested, scholarly, yet congenial attitude he creates for the seemingly dedicated butterfly collector. Green, like most comic actors, revels in the scenes he plays in drag, especially when he gets to play one of the elderly Victorian sisters who own the shop in which Holmes hires his messengers. He is also spunky as one of those Baker Street Irregulars. His finest portrayal may be that of the taciturn, sullen, and threatening servant, Barrymore, the butler and caretaker at the Baskerville mansion. For all the overstating and B-movie menace in the character, Green keeps him suspicious and creepy enough to establish him as a possible villain and not just a menacing joke. Matt Zambrano is the comic image of an American, a Texan no less, who finds some of the cautionary folderol securing his safety a bit much, especially considering his skill with a six-shooter. Crystal Finn is at her best as the story’s heroine, Beryl Stapleton. While Finn seems too merry and familiar as Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, she finds just the right tone for the sensible, intelligent, and romantic Beryl. Dehnert keeps all moving efficiently, and you never know what surprise may fling from the flies, traps, and wings. Jess Goldstein’s costume design is particularly good. He even puts Holmes’s deer-stalker cap in play. Philip Rosenberg and Joel Shier’s lighting helps to set tone and to create a sense of place, especially when the action is set on the rocky, swampy moors. Overall Grade: B+. Obtain tickets by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org
THE BOOK OF MORMON — National Tour at Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, through Sunday, December 27 — Strong performances by lead players David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand make his touring production of “Mormon” the best and most thoroughly successful among the three stagings I’ve seen. Sincerity is the key. Larsen goes beyond the page and great jokes that fill it as Elder Price, the star pupil of his missionary class and burdened bearer of all of the expectations that go with valedictory. Larsen is authentic, and believable, in all he has to do as Price. He remains boyish and retains the callow lack of sophistication that makes him envision Disney’s Orlando as the ideal place of Earth. He conveys the seriousness of a committed youth who has followed the rules, excelled at impressing people, and has determination to ace anything he attempts. He also conveys the shallowness of being the best because of needing to please rather than because of innate talent, judgment, intellect, cunning, mastery of subject, or excellence. Best of all, Larsen’s Elder seems natural as he faces adversity and eventually becomes credibly enlightened by his ordeal as the Church of Latter Day Saints’s emissary in near-primitive Uganda. Larsen encompasses contradictions that marry innocence and leadership as well as petulance and determination. You believe he might be benighted enough to fall back on Mormon friendliness to persuade a murderous Ugandan rebel to put down his guns and quell his dictatorial sway over cringing villagers by accepting the peaceful ways of Mormonism. (Larsen must be taking cues from John Kerry, except Elder Price is a Mormon, not a moron.) You feel Price’s disappointment and the understand the bad decisions that derive from it. Larsen creates a complete and human character. He moves “The Book of Mormon” out of cartoon status and makes all master “South Park” gagsters Matt Stone and Trey Parker are saying and lampooning more poignant and more palpably satirical. Likewise, Cody Jamison Strand seems to be doing more than a comic turn as the incompetent, mendacious clown among the young missionaries, Elder Cunningham. While using size, in terms of both personal girth and comic broadness, in playing Cunningham, Strand also shows the desperation and sanity-saving imagination that drives the hapless 19-year-old to lie and make up preposterous stories. You see the kid who wants to be accepted but doesn’t want to work at it. At least not by considering his aggressiveness towards others, his slovenly ways, or his less-than-pristine hygiene. Strand plays the loser who wants to fit and be loved in spite of his faults. As with Larsen, there’s more to his portrayal than getting by on Parker and Stone’s bright material. Larsen and Strand not only make their characters more interesting and worth watching than their Broadway and earlier touring counterparts did, but they make “The Book of Mormon” a more solid multi-faceted show. While the parodic, satirical properties of “Mormon” cannot be denied, and while its comedy is in a class that goes neatly and entertainingly over the top, the show struck me on previous occasions as a one-joke wonder. It never seemed to go far enough in ridiculing Mormonism or religion. It seems to rely on a zany, and hilarious, premise and use some easy-to-caricature groups, clean-cut Mormons and near-primitive Africans, to create some larky comedy. I always wanted Parker and Stone to go deeper, to be really mean, and to tear at the roots of proselytizing, philosophy peddling, and the literary world’s image of the third world villager, not to mention bloodthirsty rebels, but I contented myself in enjoying the jaundiced humor, wacky plot twists, and genuine laughs Parker and Stone were willing to offer. This touring production doesn’t make “The Book of Mormon” any more savage in terms of go-for-the-throat commentary, but through Larsen and Strand, it endows it with heart that knits Parker and Stone’s comic ideas together and tells a more moving story that becomes funnier, more biting, and more satisfying because it seems to have a human core that transcends the opportunity to tell a lot of jokes and make a lot of fun of easy targets. In past productions of “The Book of Mormon,” my favorite scene was the one in which Price returns from the rebel camp to the village he is assigned to convert in a state of medical distress, the rebel general having shoved a thick, sharply bound copy of the Book of Mormon in his anal cavity. This time, it was the interaction of Price or Cunningham with various other characters that involved me. I was more impressed and entertained with the song, “I Believe” Price sings before and while confronting the general that I was with the uncomfortable, if hilarious, aftermath. I enjoyed Elder Cunningham’s exuberant, and unintentional, conning of the villagers by adding element of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” in his commentary. Strand’s approach to his proselytizing ties back well to the line when he admits he has never read all the way through The Book of Mormon because he finds his story too boring. By finding the characters more fascinating, and taking a closer interest in them, all of the elements of “The Book of Mormon” become richer. It’s still a bit overhyped as an incisive commentary and still as much gag-laden as it is shrewdly commentating, but, in the current production at the Forrest, the story seems fuller and more linked to the people who are living it. They are less cogs and ciphers than they are people who are learning about new aspects of life individually and together. Larsen and Strand humanize Price and Cunningham, and “The Book of Mormon,” already a well-accepted comic work, becomes more textured, expressive, moving, and commentating because of it. Larsen leads the way to difference. Strand cements it. His Cunningham is more naturally and lovably incompetent than other portrayals have been. Strand’s Cunningham is a kid who tries his best to do well but says, “Heck, it’s not happening,” and gives in to his fancy and sense of fun. He’s not an engaging character, but when played with the honesty Strand gives him, you enjoy seeing Cunningham bumble into possible success. Strand shows his loser of a character becoming inspired as he weaves farther-fetched elements into the origin of Mormonism than Joseph Smith cooked up. Strand’s Cunningham is like a storytelling machine once he gets his narrative going, and the touring ensemble serves him well by visibly shedding their incredulity and becoming fascinated with the tales of Jews, angels, Jedis, and hobbits Cunningham extemporaneously relates. Cunningham has to answer questions regarding matters Smith nor any concocter of scripture had to consider. Unlike trying to give coolly reasoned and sensible responses to questions about rampant AIDS, worms in scrotums, female circumcision, and hostile military incursion, as Elder Price or a more mature missionary might, Cunningham enchants his audience by making up history as it suits his purpose. He wins over several Africans who are sure one way to cure AIDS is having intercourse with a baby by informing them Joseph Smith cured his venereal ailments by having sex with frogs and similar fables he manufactures like an addled Aesop under pressure to devise a plausible tale and moral on the fly. Larsen and Strand pull you into “Mormon’s” story so you appreciate Parker and Stone’s handicraft more and notice foreshadowing and tiebacks that breezed by unnoted in less careful hands. They lead an excellent cast that follows their example in extracting all the comedy and heart from this naughty, funny musical. Candace Quarrels matches the starring pair in authenticity, She makes it touching when Nabulungi, a young villager whose fathers keeps her safe from both AIDS-ridden suitors and rabid circumcisers, thinks an obsolete portable typewriter is a texting device. Quarrels’s openness as Nabulungi, whom Cunningham calls Neutrogena, Nicorette, Nivia, or any names that begins with an “N,” makes it all the tarter and funnier when the line, “It’s a metaphor” is spoken in “Mormon’s” second act. The actress shows you the depth of her character’s belief, which is even stronger than Elder Price’s because it comes from considered personal decision rather than inculcation since birth. Her rendition of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” is as moving as it comical because Quarrels shows you Nabulungi’s dreams and desires and how much she’s been deluded by the expected paradise of Salt Lake City. Daxton Bloomquist is wonderful as Elder McKinley, who welcomes Price and Cunningham to the Ugandan ministry and teaches them dandy techniques in the clever Parker-Stone-Robert Lopez song, “Turn It Off” and who exaggerated celebrates Cunningham’s success at conversions by leading the ensemble in “I Am Africa.” Others who keep this touring production on a keel superior to previously seen “Mormons” are James Vincent Meredith, as Nabulungi’s wise father and Price and Cunningham’s liaison to the village, David Aron Damane as the rebel general who gives Elder Price a special thrill, Melvin Brandon Logan as a doctor sorely plagued with an affliction of his own, and Edward Watts as a series of uptight, no-nonsense adults. “The Book of Mormon” sets up its parody early and its “Hello” opener, Price’s “I Believe,” and McKinley’s “Turn It Off,” remain gems of musical theater satire. “Hasa Diga Eenbowai” is in class by itself in terms of comic cynicism. Expressing dissatisfaction with deities, the song, and expression, often comes in handy outside of the show. Overall Grade: A. Obtain tickets by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL, McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Avenue, Princeton, N.J. through Sunday, December 27 — It’s bittersweet to think of McCarter retiring this classy, affecting, and opulent staging of Dickens’s Christmas classic. I guess 15 years became a point of diminishing audience returns rather a milestone of a tradition. A new “Christmas Carol” is in the works for 2016. I, for one, wish tradition could prevail in this been-there, done-that world. David Thompson’s script is a gem, and Michael Unger’s current staging is a sign that this show is ageproof and can seem fresh year after year. Even Graeme Malcolm’s fifth or sixth appearance as Scrooge seems newly minted as opposed to renewed. I tend to leave a few years between visits to “A Christmas Carol” (except for the 1951 film version starring Alistair Sim), and am grateful I took advantage of this last chance to see Thompson and Unger’s. Ming Cho Lee’s set creates atmosphere from the minute it appears, St. Paul’s dominating the background in a London that is foggier, bleaker, and more workaday that it seems presently. The streets radiating from Lee’s St. Paul’s don’t quite have the care and luster that’s revitalized the East End since just before the Millennium. Why should they? Victorian London, Dickensian London, Scrooge’s London paid more attention to utility than to cleanliness and cosmetics. They were simply thoroughfares where people toiled and lived, not calling cards to a charming section of town. The dark and smoky look of the streetscape, St. Paul’s and all, sets up the dreariness of Scrooge’s counting house and home and offsets the easy merriment of the Fezziwigs’ establishment. Lee’s set is vertical with massive pieces setting the tone for all that happens on the wide Matthews Theatre stage in the foreground. The handsome scenery and appropriate mood it conjures is only the beginning. Thompson, like Dickens, is a master storyteller. He combines humor and sentiment well, showing Scrooge to be as comic as he is cruel and flippant and keeping the rest of London from being overly treacly. He humanizes Scrooge against the skinflint’s will or expectation by reminding him of when people, feelings, and associations mattered to him. The Fezziwigs are not only comic relief. They show a way of life that is comfortable and full of joy while putting money in a perspective Scrooge, as he ages, can less and less fathom. This is a smart production that uses the generous elements Dickens provides with wisdom, making points while remaining entertaining, as the master writer of Doughty Street did. Malcolm gives insight into Scrooges past as a ghost accompanies Scrooge through Christmases past. To Unger’s credit, this never seems comme il faut. You get no sense that you know this story by heart and don’t need to be told or shown it. On the contrary, the glory of theater takes over. This McCarter “Christmas Carol” is a full play of its own. It engages you entirely. You may be able to recite Dickens verbatim, and you will still be absorbed in this production as it unfolds before you. No one takes shortcuts. There’s no suggestion that this stuff is so familiar, we don’t have to perform with depth and detail. Unger has mounted a production that passes all theatrical tests, including fascinating you with what you already know. “A Christmas Carol” is realized as a genuine work of theater as opposed to being shown perfunctorily in dialogue. Even portions that include comedy and fantasy work well because they’re done with judgment and taste. In the midst of everything, the appearances of ghosts as well as Scrooge’s real refusal to aid the needy while English taxes support prisons and workhouses, you believe you are seeing genuine people going about their lives in Victorian London rather than stick figures blithely acting out a popular story. When Malcolm’s Scrooge dances with glee, or has true sentimental pangs at seeing his sister, Fan, or would-be bride, Belle, during his tour of his past, the honest emotion of the moment comes through. Malcolm makes you see the softer side of Scrooge by acting naturalistically and not exaggerating, pandering, or being self-consciously obvious. Conversely, when he goes into a spry caper as the Fezziwigs’ gaiety becomes infectious, you see a Scrooge who has generously lost his inhibitions and gruffness and who appreciates the sprightly tone of the occasion. The care Unger takes in giving his production strong, unwinking theatrical values, makes the McCarter “Christmas Carol” special. Everyone in the cast follows Malcolm’s suit. All performances have dimensional and authentic human scale and grace. Of course when the 12-foot-tall ghost of Christmas Yet to Be appears, or the ghost of Christmas Present makes an entrance cackling and reeking of joy, the naturalistic shell is broken, but in ways that are theatrically creative and consistent. The McCarter cast is doing top-notch work. Allen E. Reed’s Bob Cratchit shows no cringing servility towards Scrooge and no resentment towards low wages that are the lot of many Londoners and the wish of many who cannot find employment. Reed’s Cratchit is an average Joe that works for a living but has his cultural pleasures, loves and takes care of his family, and makes do with what he has instead of yearning for more. Blessedly, nothing about Unger’s production is political. It makes its points all the more strongly because it isn’t. Even the appearance of “Want” and “Ignorance” registers without being overplayed or overread. Beauty is the set and costumes. Performance stays on human scale, and that keeps McCarter’s “Christmas Carol” compelling. You want to see all of Dickens’s famous scenes enacted, especially when the acting fits so well and so fusslessly with the material. Like Reed, James Ludwig, as Scrooge’s nephew, Fan’s son, Fred, carries himself in a way that eschews being too daunted by Scrooge’s bark or more than minimally upset that his uncle cannot enjoy Christmas spirit. In the same way, Bradley Mott and Kathy Fitzgerald show the flamboyance of the Fezziwigs but never take matters to a level that seems outlandish or clownish. Unger asks for a tone of reality, and his cast gives it to him. Notable among that number, in addition to those mentioned, are January LaVoy as a down-to-earth Mrs. Crachit, Leah Anderson as Scrooge’s sincerely inviting niece by marriage, Lily, Allison Bucks and Kathy Fitzgerald as wealthy women collecting money for the poor, and Jonas Hinsdale as Tiny Tim. I also enjoyed Troy Vallery’s turn as a poulterer’s delivery boy straining with the weight of the giant turkey Scrooge buys for the Cratchits. Music, by Michael Starobin, and dance, by Rob Ashford, are excellent. Overall Grade: A+. Obtain tickets by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting www.mccarter.org
GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERS, Pig Iron Theatre at Christ Church Neighborhood House, N. 2nd and Church Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, December 27 — A sweet, but slight, play about romance during war was practically buried in theater technique that purports to be enhancing or texturing but is generally filler to make a short story into a full production. The nucleus of “Gentlemen Volunteers” is strong and interesting enough to watch it be played out. The theater games, having the audience move with the Pig Iron Players around the Neighborhood House space, and miming that is often more precious than clever, can be tedious and actually get in the way of, rather than advancing, Suli Holum’s intelligent text. Why can’t a character wear actual glasses, instead constantly indicating he is putting on specs and then, pushing them higher on his nose? They can’t be that cumbersome a prop, especially in a shirt with two pockets! The little poke Scott Sheppard give his glasses is witty the first time he does it. After that, the move becomes one more extraneous bit of business that puts form ahead of content in a ho-hum way. “Gentlemen Volunteers” is best when the cast is acting out its actual drama and gains nothing by one actor tracing squared-off boxes around another’s head or shoulders, as if the gesture animates that character and gives him/her permission to speak, nothing except perhaps your unexpressed snicker. Holum’s script, crafted with Pig Iron colleagues who originally performed this piece, is a moving story of four people who meet during World War I and forge romantic relationships that leaven, or complicate, an intense setting. It is a good, taut look at the young and committed who find themselves in a battle than might take as much a personal toll, as it does a global one. (As I use the word “toll,” I think of Hemingway, and “Gentlemen Volunteers” reminded me of his subjects and style.) Left to its own devises, this script would run less than an hour, a length that may have been considered by Pig Iron to be too brief and brought about all the traffic and folderol. Pig Iron did not need to lead its audience hither and yon or jump through theatrical hoops to extend its show’s running time. It had a built in device that worked and would have felicitously increased the show’s length while entertaining rather than disrupting. The device is music. Talented Michael Castillejos is present with his accordion and percussion pieces to regale the crowd with favorite French and American tunes related to the war. As the audience enters the Neighborhood House, Castellijos accompanies actress Melissa Krodman as she sings Edith Piaf’s “L’Accordioniste,” a piece about a street musician who is injured in World War I and can go longer play his instrument. It’s followed by Castillejos singing the silly dance tune, “Everybody’s Doing It.” The poignant followed by a popular carefree flapdoodle! It bodes well and sets up a mood for the show. So do beginning scenes once you decide to stop trying to decipher the miming, which is more fatuous than clear. Frat brothers from an Ivy League school, circa 1915, express impatience about the United States entering the in-progress fighting in Europe. They want Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany so they can join the fray and end the conflict, toute de suite. One of the more gung ho brothers, Rich, wants to fly military missions and help France annihilate Germany. The other, Vince, a reader and thinker, is more serious and more intent about seeing a bloody conflict come to a close. With a French victory, of course. Because they won’t be deployed to France if they join the army, the men enlist as volunteers in a civilian effort to bring aid to the French and British troops at the front. Though volunteers, they are part of an effort organized by the International Red Cross and subject to a chain of command. Stationed in France, they could also be asked to do dangerous tasks, such as driving messages and supplies close to the front lines of battle. Through the play, Rich and Vince stay true to their individual personalities, Rich being the American with the big smile and big ambitions who wants to infect everyone with his confidence and enthusiasm, Vince being the thoughtful guy who thinks a job needs to be done and that he should contribute to the doing of it. “Gentlemen Volunteeers” never delves into the causes or merits of World War I (a conflict I find fascinating because, in retrospect, it seems so unnecessary yet has and had such a lasting influence on world affairs). In France, two women from partisan nations, Françoise, from France, and Mary, from England, work with the Red Cross as nurses. Françoise heads the unit to which Mary, Vince, and Rich are assigned. She is no-nonsense in the manner of military officer and always seems to be carrying the world on her shoulders. The number of wounded men is overwhelming. The base from which Françoise and the others operate recalls images of Civil War hospitals or the M.A.S.H. unit from movies and television. Serious, unending work is being done, and Françoise is serious about it. Mary is more inclined to do her duty but look for relief from the bloody and the dead by going out, dancing, and doing things young people, even committed, diligent young people, enjoy during leisure hours. Mary, who feels sincerely obligated to do her part in the war and is proud of her effort, but wants an ordinary life with home and children, links with enthusiastic Rich. Françoise, a war widow who regards herself as still being married, and the introspective, bespectacled Vince, also strike up a romance. Each pairing is rife with both passion and tension. Françoise is attracted to Vince, but the Red Cross base needs her constant attention and she feels that being with another man while the war rages is a betrayal to her fallen husband. Rich takes for a lark what Mary sees as for keeps, a situation that becomes more complicated when Mary becomes pregnant. All of the elements for melodrama, bravery, broken hearts, tragedy, and happy endings are in Solum’s script, and we enjoy seeing the dramatic moments play out. Scenes showing the lovers’ conflicts and the urgency of carrying out one’s responsibilities, are clear and engaging. One is interested in Françoise’s coldness, Vince’s ardent persevering, Mary’s Everywoman quality, Rich’s buoyancy, and Françoise’s inner conflict. These characters have won us over. Holum and company respect their audience and keep the crises in the relationships plausible and mature, so much that a couple of scenes are heartbreaking while others are tough and hard in a mature way. As I said, the small play Holum and her colleagues crafted works. Dan Rothenberg’s production engulfs it. Scenes lose power because they are interrupted or delayed by audience moves and self-conscious stage business. (Intellectualizing, I thought maybe shifting the audience was meant to give a sense of the fast response and sudden change the characters face, but the notion didn’t hold.) “Gentlemen Volunteers” doesn’t achieve its full potential because it wants to be too smart and formal for its own good. Better a short play than all of the window dressing that limits the production’s effectiveness. Better extended and commentating musical interludes — remember Castillejos — than physically uprooting the audience at the break between scenes. The Pig Iron cast is uniformly good, Bryant Martin being effective as the eager American flyboy who gets his wish and enters the war as a soldier. Martin even aces one appropriate and well-placed mime scene in which he is driving a new Model T Ford at breakneck speed over rough, war-torn terrain even though Rich has never been taught to operate a car. Melissa Krodman, as Françoise, is deft at playing the rigidity and discipline the character shows on the outside and a woman smoldering on the inside, for her late husband whose memory she stoically puts aside while running her hospital with military precision, and for Vince. Scott Sheppard conveys Vince’s honor, love, and maturity well. Lauren Ashley Carter is likeably, and admirably, charming as Mary. Designer Trey Lyford has placed lights with string pulls strategically around the stage. The technique is a quite effective. Overall Grade: B. Obtain tickets by visiting www.pigiron.ticketleap.com/gentlemen-volunteers