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This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Inspecting Carol’

What’s an NEA inspector — or a critic, for that

matter — to do? Theatrical standards are falling, playwriting

is a shambles, and such crude stunts as eating a suppository are being

palmed off as comedy.

This was the dilemma faced by this critic (and, I confess, former

NEA site visitor) at "Inspecting Carol," directed by David

Saint, and playing at George Street Playhouse through December 27.

On opening night of the holiday production, suppositories were eaten

(twice), damage was done to men’s private parts, props were used as

weapons, characters paraded on stage in ridiculous states of undress

— and yet the show’s mostly limp jokes were barely audible above

the howls of laughter emanating from the SRO audience. With or without

a critic’s credentials, I was clearly outnumbered.

The seasonal comedy about an aging theater company and a National

Endowment for the Arts inspector was created by artistic director

Dan Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theater in 1990, from the

admittedly

funny concept of merging "A Christmas Carol" with Gogol’s

"The Inspector General," substituting NEA aspirations for

the bureaucratic foibles of the Russian empire. On opening night at

George Street the modest results earned a mind-boggling standing

ovation.

"Inspecting Carol" tells the Darwinian survival story of the

Soapbox Players of Cincinnati, headed by artistic director Zorah Bloch

(Kelly Bishop), as it embarks on its ill-fated 13th season of Charles

Dickens’ beloved Christmas classic — and annual cash cow —

"A Christmas Carol." As the first of four days’ rehearsal

gets underway, an unknown actor wanders into the theater, begging

for an audition. Denied the opportunity — he’s not a member of

Actors Equity — Wayne Wellacre (Jim Fyfe) gives stage manager

M.J. (Denny Dillon), and us, his classic "Richard III" scene

anyway. (This artistic tour-de-force comes back to haunt us when Wayne

steps in as a last-minute replacement for Tiny Tim.)

As the company’s new and first-ever business manager,

Kevin (Wally Dunn) interrupts rehearsal to deliver news of the

company’s

dire financial straits, including the withholding of its $30,000 NEA

grant, pending an artistic site visit. The paranoid players,

projecting

the arrival of an "anonymous" NEA evaluator, mistakenly

assumes

that the hapless actor, Wayne, is he — an NEA inspector

undercover.

Fyfe does have fun with a role that first requires him to be eager

and star-struck. Then, as he learns the reason behind the company’s

regal treatment, he gets a wicked glint in his eye and starts milking

his unwonted power for all it’s worth.

Michael Countryman plays Phil, the company’s perennial Bob Cratchit,

who sports excellent muttonchop whiskers and protests unceasingly

about hefting around Luther (Alex Brumel), the emerging star who’s

still hanging on to his "Tiny Tim" role, even though he now

weighs almost as much as Phil. The jaded Game-Boy devotee, however,

can be usefully bribed to re-boot the company’s ailing computer which

eventually consumes and destroys its 2,000-name subscriber list.

The talents of Jane and Gordon Connell are somewhat wasted in their

roles as veteran Soapbox members Dorothy and Sydney, although Jane

does have fun as an imperious British expatriate and vocal coach.

However, well-known television actor Dan Lauria actually seems more

convincing in his Soapbox role as a 19th-century maniacal Ebenezer

Scrooge than as the frustrated Larry, divorced, down-and-out actor

and inveterate political activist.

Walter E. Parsons musters as much fun and dignity as he can in the

questionable role of Ramon Moses — a black actor who is the

sum-total

of the Soapbox’s NEA-mandated "multi-cultural initiative."

Ramon is mostly puzzled by the bizarre antics of the company that

would rather debate than rehearse; but the lack of rehearsal time

does indeed come back to haunt the Soapbox players.

In her cameo appearance as the National Endowment for the Arts

inspector,

Laura Aden, executive director of the New Jersey Theater Group, was…

shall we say… stellar? This is the role that requires the inspector

to get a bowl of punch poured over her — and then deem it her

most moving theatrical experience in recent memory. Perhaps next time

I should sit closer to the punch.

— Nicole Plett

Inspecting Carol, George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Plays to December 27. $24 to

$32.


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