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This review was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 15,

1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Inspecting Carol’

Inspecting Carol," the Christmas comedy running

through Sunday, December 19, at Bristol Riverside Theater, has three

parents. But it is not likely to supplant its forebears any time soon.

Written collaboratively by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory

Company, this play with much potential but a weak script is directed

by BRT’s producing director, Susan D. Atkinson.

Obviously the first of "Inspecting Carol’s" three parents

is Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," that instantly successful

novel that has reached near mythic status as a play, movie, and

television

show. The second, written in Russia of the 1830s, is Nikolai Gogol’s

satirical and hilarious play, "The Inspector General,"

exposing

the corruption of bribable, provincial officials. The third is Michael

Frayn’s "Noises Off," popular farce about the backstage antics

and liaisons of a troupe rehearsing a play called "Noises On."

But like any child, "Inspecting Carol" makes the fusion its

own.

Like Gogol’s play, "Inspecting Carol" gives us a man who is

taken for a government official (here someone from the National

Endowment

for the Arts coming to inspect a financially desperate Midwestern

theater company). And as in Gogol, he is to come incognito. But while

Gogol’s play turns on the mistaken identity, most of "Inspecting

Carol" deals with the backstage (portrayed here before stage)

behavior and liaisons of the play’s actors. In Gogol, the real

inspector

arrives (offstage) at the end. In "Inspecting Carol," the

real government inspector arrives midway in the second of two acts.

With her (strike one for feminism) appearance (Sharon Alexander plays

NEA inspector Betty Andrews), the troupe’s Dickens’ production,

already

funny in rehearsal, becomes a hilarious comedy-satire.

Yet before all this, for one and one-half acts, the play is boring,

the humor is mostly flat. Suppository jokes, and an instruction to

actors to "place your (imaginary) lemon between your buttocks

and squeeze," are unfunny, even tasteless. True, some of the lines

are funny by themselves: "They don’t have wet dreams in

England,"

or, "Of course we’re broke, we’re an arts organization," as

are some situations. Among these situations is Larry’s, the

play-within-a-play’s

Scrooge (Edward Keith Baker): since his messy divorce he lives without

furniture, towels, or toilet paper. But these facts have nothing to

do with the identity or position of the supposed inspector. And while

Zorah (Bethe B. Austin) does a sexily-costumed job of trying to seduce

this supposed inspector, nothing more is made of it.

And for an act and a half the play lacks real, convincing conflict.

It is not enough to sustain the play that the theater company is in

dire financial straits. Nor that an unknown walk-in wants an audition.

He wants to be an actor? They simply cast him and then disregard his

supposed identity.

BRT is a hard-working company of talented actors, including the

versatile

actor-director, Edward Keith Baker. But for most of "Inspecting

Carol" — indeed until the redeeming final scenes — this

play is, to borrow an image from one of its props, a turkey. As one

of the characters, Wayne Wellacre (Norman Large), the would-be

actor-and-mistaken

inspector, says during the company’s "Christmas Carol"

rehearsal,

and this reviewer could only echo (for the majority of the play),

"Who in God’s name wrote this stinker, anyway?"

It is only in the final scenes, when the company stages its annual

"Christmas Carol," that "Inspecting Carol" takes off.

Here nearly everything that can go wrong does. Luther (Charlie Saxton)

has left suddenly for another job, leaving the production with no

Tiny Tim. So the adult Wellacre now plays Tiny, hilariously carried

on by Phil (Paul L. Nolan) wearing a back brace. (His back is already

strained from carrying the departed Luther as the overgrown Tiny.)

Walter-as-ghost, forgets his lines, Marley (Joe Tranchitella) has

his chains caught on an offstage light, Larry gets socked in the

genitals

by a pop-up tombstone, and finally the stage set falls apart. The

play has become farce — and a funny one.

Susan Atkinson has done an commendable job of pacing and of keeping

the cast moving in Nick Embree’s imaginative set, some of it wackily

tilted, promising comedy. Janet Embree’s lighting is precisely suited.

And the costumes, by Holly Graham, are appropriate. Costumes for

Walter

(the company’s token African American, well played by Derrick Eason)

are especially inspired; two of the costumes spark audience laughter

before the actor says a word. And the stunning, regal costume for

the all-powerful government inspector, dramatized in the final dumb

show as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, is gorgeous.

The play does touch on and lampoon some contemporary issues —

multiculturalism, concern for the environment, for the Third World.

But does the latter fit? And would NEA inspector Betty Andrews, given

her assessment of the play, pass out? Well, that’s our inspection.

— Joan Crespi

Inspecting Carol, Bristol Riverside Theater,

Bristol,

215-785-0100. $25 to $29. Through Sunday, December 19.


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