Local playwright Jeff Kramer aims for a second palpable hit with his sophomore comedy Reaching for Marsby
Jeff Kramer’s 2007 comedy Lowdown Lies was that rarity: a locally written and produced stage show that did great business. True, the many spoofy confections Bob Greene has penned for the Acme Mystery Dinner Theater have probably reached more audiences. And Art Zimmer’s successive incarnations of Cruizin’, with music adapted from earlier decades, did sellout business year after year. But Kramer’s Lowdown was an original work, all his words through the beginning, middle and end, developed in workshops with Armory Square Players. Not only did it do SRO business at the Redhouse, but it came back for an extended run.
You may have seen the billboard along Route 690 for his new show, Reaching for Marsby, now at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Community Room. He wants to strike gold a second time.
Some things are different from Lowdown Lies, and some things build on the strengths he had there. He’s running under his own production flag this time instead of with Armory Square Players, although he has retained Lowdown’s director Len Fonte and cast members Mark Eischen, Moe Harrington and Brendon Cole. In a candid program note Kramer acknowledges that Marsby began three years ago when he asked Eischen, a pal, if he could do a really bad English accent and the actor obliged. The incompetence of the accent, we will see, is much of what Marsby is about.
Part of the attraction of Marsby is the tight perfection of the casting; the roles are tailored for the performers we have before us. Eischen, who trained at Chicago’s Second City and has appeared on WNTQ-FM 93.1’s morning show with Ted Long and Amy Robbins, might contain a bundle of characters in his repertory, but he easily gravitates to a kind of Will Ferrell-ish benign doofus, a durable persona. Similarly, Harrington’s eyes and husky voice lend well to seduction, and Cole, with the addition of a goatee, can snarl with hauteur. Some of the best fun is what Kramer has thought up for veteran player Peter Moller, much associated with the Armory Square Players.
Gary Blenkinsopp (Eischen) is an amiable, unemployed slacker living with the lovely Lisa Stucky (Kris Rusho) in New York City. She is the household’s prime support as an artistic photographer of ornately displayed vegetables, like sexy cabbage and exquisite squash. Why Lisa should be attracted to Gary is not entirely clear: His idea of a choice gift is a book of every text message he has ever sent her.
Gary shares with her a letter described as “good news,” of how he might want to fly to a theater in rural England to audition for a role in a revival written by a Victorian playwright named Marsby. Such a questionable invitation comes only because Gary’s online video auditions were rejected. When Lisa tries to get him to recognize what’s happened, Gary responds, “I didn’t get the part about where I didn’t get the part.” Maybe he’s not Oscar Wilde, but playwright Kramer works conscientiously on the dialogue.
In Navroz Dabu’s well-designed simultaneous set, New York is at stage left, and everything else, like a theater in the English boonies, is at stage right. When Gary arrives he’s greeted by effusive producer-director Meredith Twillsbury (Karis Wiggins), skeptical stage manager Blane Meeks (Michael O’Neill), sultry leading lady Cordelia Waynewright (Moe Harrington), sneering supporting player Edwin Cheddar (Brendon Cole) and doddering character player Richard Spence (Peter Moller), all speaking in class-appropriate accents. Although they do not let on to Gary, they’re aghast at his audition, done in broadest cockney, and they send him packing.
But, astonishing as it might sound, the designated leading man has left for Hollywood, and the company is stuck with Gary. Who can believe it? If established star Dorothy Brock did not break her leg, there would be no 42nd Street.
Well, the show does go on, and although the entire audience flees the theater on the first night, Gary goes on to breathless, unexpected success. The crowd finds him a disruptive, irreverent comic, like Benny Hill as a leading man. Much of Gary’s British stage career, sometimes in drag, but also leading to bigger audiences in London, occupies more than half of Marsby.
Here is where director Fonte and the cast really fulfill Kramer’s vision. Instead of one joke sustained for an hour, we get an ascending ladder of gags, culminating with Gary’s drunken duo with the ancient Richard Spence. Moller’s Spence had been stealing scenes from his first entrance, but here he delivers the goods—which means the bads.
Romance is not neglected. Missing his stateside sweetheart, Gary substitutes her name, “Lisa,” when talking to his leading lady in and out of character. Late at night in the props closet, luscious Cordelia arrives asking if they should rehearse the snogging scene. Do not bother with your slang dictionary, “snog” only refers to passionate kissing, and “shag” is the more serious term, but Gary and Cordelia neglect to draw the line between snogging and shagging. There are only so many ways this can lead.
Reaching for Marsby is a comedy, winning loads of laughs, but it is not a farce. Nor is it anti-British; Kramer says he was in the United Kingdom only one week 20 years ago. Instead, Gary embodies the anxiety every performing artist feels, and that Kramer must have known as the humor columnist for The Post-Standard from 2003 until 2011: Is the crowd laughing with me or at me?
As an anxious comedy-maker this theme is as old as Moliere and as commonplace in modern drama and film, although rarely sustained as long is it is here. Think of how Alfred Hitchcock depicts Cary Grant, ironically the coolest dude ever, in the art auction scene in North By Northwest. In life, of course, the Brits must now bow to us. That’s why actors like Tom Wilkinson, Gerard Butler and Alan Cumming have perfected their American accents, and Adele becomes a winner by sounding as though she grew up in midtown Detroit.
One sign of Jeff Kramer’s inexperience is that he puts a heavy burden on Mark Eischen, who has more than half the spoken lines in the text and has to keep knocking gags out, scene after scene. Everyone else is perfect in the roles written for them, but for Eischen Reaching for Marsby is a romp of epic proportions.
This production runs through March 18. See Times Table for information.