Brit Lit Hit
Communist Farce in the U.K.
Taproot Theatre, 781-9707. Through Sept 1.
Playwright Michael Frayn may be best known in the U.S. as the author of Copenhagen, a brilliant drama based on a secret wartime meeting between two former colleagues, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (who worked on quantum physics and the uncertainly principle) and the Danish Niels Bohr (who revolutionized atomic physics). Copenhagen is a serious play that examines how much we can know of the physical world, of each other, and of history.
In the comic Balmoral, Frayn turns history on its head by supposing that instead of taking place in Russia, the Communist Revolution of 1917 took place in England. The play takes place in 1937 at Balmoral Castle, formerly the summer home of the British royal family, now a retreat center for writers. The writers in Frayn's play--Enid Blyton (Karen Nelson), Godfrey Winn (Shawn Law), Warwick Deeping (Bill Higham), and Hugh Walpole (Nolan Palmer)--are all based on real English writers of the 1930s. Before this play, I was only familiar with two of these writers: Blyton, who wrote an insipid series of books for kids, and Walpole, an effete and eccentric (read: faggy) friend of Virginia Woolf who, though he didn't understand her work, loved to confide his homosexual fantasies to her.
The plot gets going when Kochetov, a suave Russian journalist (though sometimes his accent sounds Italian) played by John Gonzalez, arrives at the castle to do a story about the worker writers. Kochetov is accompanied by earnest ingenue Trisha, played convincingly by pretty Jesse Notehelfer. Frayn does a great job of satirizing the stupid stereotypes that commies have of decadent capitalists and that capitalists have of repressive commies. He also does a great job of showing up artistic pretension and upper-class artsy lefties who say they enjoy slumming with "the workers" but are as likely to lift a hand to do any physical work as they are to fly to the moon. After the show, I went upstairs to Taproot's lobby to look at the neat little display about the writers upon whom the show is based. It's a testament to both Frayn and this cast that, despite the fact that most American audiences won't get the in-jokes and personal references to these writers like an English audience would, this production succeeds as a farce.
And a well-made farce certainly satisfies. Things start out separate and disjointed, then gradually converge and finally collide in a huge conflagration as gorgeous as a 10-car pile-up at rush hour. Balmoral comes complete with mistaken identities, a dead body that refuses to sit still, and more double entendres than you can stuff inside a trunk. But the show also makes wry comments on the English class system and on class in general; this depth of theme elevates this comic work above that of, say, Neil Simon, who--though he can also write well-made farces--lacks the additional engagement with serious issues that Frayn tackles. In Frayn's version of 1937, Russia has become a decadent capitalist state and Britain a communist country where, while artists might be given nice vacations by the state, they also fear imprisonment (à la Stalin's purges) if they put a foot wrong.
Scenic designer Richard Long must have spent a long time in Britain. His set for the decayed writers' retreat captures perfectly the genteel shabbiness of the place: The walls are grayed where paintings have been removed; the furniture is dowdy. Everyone has to wear gloves and scarves and raggedy wool jackets inside because it's so cold. Higham is perfect as the long-faced, agreeably cynical Deeping; Nelson is excellent as the self-consciously over-the-hill Blyton ("I'm not 48!"). Law and Brady's British accents aren't consistent, but they each gradually relax into their parts. In the interest of not giving away the main comic reversal in the play, suffice it to say that longtime Taproot favorite Palmer demonstrates his ability to portray both a very officious snob and a very resentful yob.
The second act of this two-act show drags and some of the actors' accents are rough around the edges, but overall Balmoral is entertaining and fun. I'm recommending it to friends.