Plano — Theater often likes to turn its thematic gaze inward to discover its truths—plays about plays, if you will. Some of the best span from many of the Bard’s works such as Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to more modern takes like Chekhov’s The Seagull, Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Of course, plays about critics (those most favorite punching bags) also crop up: Kander and Ebb’s Curtains to Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.
It is in that theatrical tradition—and with healthy doses of the films Weekend at Bernie’s and Waiting for Guffman—that Jeff Swearingen sets his mad genius (based on a concept by Dave Tenney) off and running in Stiff, a Fun House Theatre and Film production that contemplates the death of a critic.
It is 1950s Broadway (really off-off) and the mega-influential critic Mickey Blake, who is more accustomed to killing plays with his wicked words, dies while reviewing an awful piece of work in the Tin Box Theatre. After discovering Mr. Blake’s demise, Saul Solomon (Doak Campbell Rapp), Stanley (Marcus Miller) and Robert (Chris Rodenbaugh)—respectively the producer, director, and writer—hatch a madcap caper to hide the critic’s death and write a glowing review under his name.
Like many of Swearingen’s plays, there are lots of moving parts; however, as per usual, he has an uber-talented cast of kids who are up to the task under his skillful direction. Rodenbaugh’s interpretation of the nebbish writer who is full of OCD tics and locks himself in the bathroom in times of distress is more than apt. Miller is a stabilizing straight-man force as the director who tries to hold on amid all the chaos of personalities. And Rapp’s inspired take on the fast-talking “equal opportunistic employer” shows how much he continues to grow as a formidable stage actor.
The play-within-a-play in this play that slays Blake, The Blighted Heart, is a cancer drama complete with bad southern accents and prolonged death scenes that Mickey originally described as “a nine-act play that is ten acts too long.” It is so bad-it’s-good-it’s-so-bad-it’s-good-again. A stereotypical hack actor, Guy Van (a laugh-riot Jaxon Beeson) plays a dying war vet who wears a Fred from Scooby Doo scarf and usually wields a puppet, has an acting coach named Rasputin and spouts overdramatic lines like “Oh there you are; make me a sandwich.” His counterpart, Vanessa Verkamp (Laney Neumann) vamps it up convincingly while social-climbing all over the next best thing.
Taylor Donnelson is spot on as the innocent ingénue and Marielle Wyatt is like a fierce, young Joan Crawford as the heroically drunken Mrs. Mickey Blake. Kudos also to Tex Patrello as the “dead critic.” He may not seem to be doing much, but he sells being stiff quite well before, during, and after the show.
Everything feels just right in this production (a sure sign of a complete vision): from the park-inspired set by Clare Floyd DeVries to Bren Rapp’s jazzy costumes of cardigans, suits, and skirts, dresses and gloves. Even the rat-a-tat screwball comedy pacing and dialogue (Doak Rapp is particularly good at this) contribute to the immersive experience. The fact that Swearingen and company were able to put this show up in about four weeks with nine total rehearsals is a tribute to the hard work and magic that they regularly create at Fun House.
This production kills not just the critic in the show but the one writing this review—with laughter.
» Full disclosure, several area critics and I participated in a short bio video about the life and death of Mickey Blake. Almost no one would say that our acting in any way contributed to the quality of the show.