The news that Princeton’s McCarter Theater is launching the newest farce by Ken Ludwig can be expected to bring a smile to our faces.
As the author of the now classic award-winning Broadway hit “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ludwig has found a receptive audience at McCarter, which has now been home to four premieres of his comedies, all of which have been in varying degrees enjoyable. His dominance as America’s most lauded contemporary playwright of farces has not been challenged.
The only challenge I can see at the present is how to get “The Gods of Comedy” into some kind of cohesive comical structure before it takes off for a run at San Diego’s Old Globe, McCarter’s associate producing partner for this venture.
At present, I can’t imagine how any of the ancient Greek gods of comedy will look down kindly upon what is being perpetrated in their name and in the service of farce upon the McCarter stage under the direction of Amanda Dehnert.
Given that allowances must be made for the rewrites that presumably will continue to shape the play and for the capable performers who must deal with them as professionals must, the result at this point is a play that is far from ready for the stage.
I suspect that there may be something really funny hidden deep beneath the rash of frenetic antics and the kind of acting that gives a bad name to what is traditionally referred to as scenery chewing. But these flaws only compound the play’s problems. It’s obvious from the first scene Dehnert does not fully trust the material so, in the oldest of theatrical traditions, she has the actors do everything bigger, faster, and louder.
Like all good farces, the play begins with a reasonable premise: Daphne (Shay Vawn) an instructor in the history department of an American university, is directing a production of “Medea” by Euripides as a part of her tenure program. While in Greece, she meets Ralph (Jevon McFerrin) a new professor, a classicist who believes he has unearthed an unknown play by Euripides about Andromeda and Perseus that will change history because it only has two characters.
Back at the university things go awry when Daphne not only loses her two lead actors but loses the text of the new play that Ralph has left in her care. In despair, she calls out to the Greek gods for help. Suddenly Dionysus (Brad Oscar) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) appear in ancient Grecian attire — and really know how to camp it up. They are also ready and eager to help her as well as find the missing play.
It wouldn’t be a farce unless things get more complicated, and they do with the arrival of the fully armored and intensely amorous Ares. Arriving with the assist of a “Star Wars” fanfare, Ares is played by George Psomas, who also plays Aristide, the Greek peddler, as well as Aleksi, a daffy Russian janitor.
Steffanie Leigh plays an ambitious blond actress and alumna who wants the lead in the new play. She also plays Aristide’s wife, Zoe. And award for chief defender of Thespis — the ancient Greek founder of the acting tradition — goes to Keira Naughton as the ever intrusive Dean Trickett.
More than a little daffy by design, they all become key players in an ensuing muddle of misadventures. No need to go any further into the plot’s many convolutions in which the gods become visible and then invisible while also impersonating others at will. There is an end to the nonsense designed to make everyone happy.
Is this play salvageable? Yes, with help of a tough and committed dramaturg. But can Dehnert, who so ably directed Ludwig’s “Baskerville” and also Kate Hamill’s off-Broadway “Pride and Prejudice” — one of my favorite productions — pull back on the reins and let the best of this farce come forth?
What remains best are Jason Sherwood’s handsome scenic designs that transport us from a bazaar on the island of Naxos in Greece to the faculty office of an American liberal arts college and finally to the campus grounds. The practical and whimsical costumes by Linda Roethke are excellently designed. Lighting designer Brian Gale has cast the best light possible on a play in desperate need.
The Gods of Comedy, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through March 31. $25 to $85. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org