Fort Worth — Good comedy should surprise us, and there aren’t enough surprises in Tom Dudzick’s script for Don’t Talk to the Actors, a Broadway backstage comedy that feels pieced together from a dozen other “let’s put on a play” shows we’ve seen onstage, on film, on TV. It’s Circle Theatre’s fifth go-round with the Buffalo-born playwright, whose usual stomping grounds are the sturdy working-class (and mostly Catholic) neighborhoods of his youth—but it isn’t one of his best.
Director Harry Parker and a super-talented comedy cast do their darnedest—and there are some very funny bits—but ultimately the script lets them down, trying to wring laughs from material that feels a bit dried up, not juicy fresh.
Too bad, because Parker and Circle have been on a roll with Dudzick comedies for more than a decade, first with his popular “Tavern” trilogy: Over the Tavern (2005), The Last Dance at St. Casimir’s (2007) and Hail, Mary! (2009); and more recently with Miracle on South Division Street (2013)—all of them favorite fare for Circle audiences.
Don’t Talk to the Actors tells the story of young Buffalo playwright Jerry (Curtis Raymond Shideler, all nerves and expectation), whose chance-of-a-lifetime has arrived: someone wants to produce his play in New York. He arrives for the first day of rehearsals with fiancée Arlene (a fluttery Meg Shideler) by his side. In a shy, trying-not-to-show-it way, they’re both bug-eyed with excitement: he at the chance to trade Buffalo for Broadway, she at the prospect of meeting one of the play’s actors, an aging heartthrob she idolized as a girl.
Slowly, the rehearsal room collects the usual suspects of backstage comedy: detail-minded but volatile Louis (Jerry Downey), “the most sought-after stage manager in New York”; wise but quirky director Mike (Ben Phillips), a Chicagoan obsessed by the high price of everything in New York; and self-absorbed actors Curt (Bob Hess) and Beatrice (Wendy Welch), careers limping along on leftover celebrity from a long-ago TV series.
“Don’t talk to the actors,” Mike warns Jerry, and smart advice it is. But in a tiny rehearsal room, how can he avoid them? Curt wants Jerry to give his role more anger and “edge.” Bea wants jokes, and lots of ‘em: “I’ll show you where they go.” Neither thinks Jerry’s play about “nice people” will sell in New York. With every suggestion, Jerry’s white-knuckled grip on his script gets tighter and tighter. Re-writes? No way.
Curt poses and flirts with Jerry’s girl Arlene (he thinks she can talk him into script changes), who regresses to stammering teenager whenever he looks her way. And both Curt and Beatrice chew plenty of scenery as they try to woo Jerry—Curt speaking his lines in raging Brando style, Bea swinging into the bawdy songs of her nightclub act.
By the playwright’s own account, Don’t Talk to the Actors is as autobiographical as his “Tavern” series, drawing from the experience of having a play, Greetings!, produced off-Broadway in the early 1990s. Yet Dudzick’s writing voice, distinct and personal when he’s writing about those old neighborhoods in Buffalo, seems muted here. Perhaps, even though he was writing about real events, he couldn’t find much to say about New York theater that hadn’t been said before. The actors are egomaniacs, the playwright’s a babe in the woods, the unseen producer like the voice of God from on high. What’s new?
Clare Floyd DeVries’ deliberately drab, beige-on-beige rendering of the rehearsal studio is spot on, right down to the views of Manhattan buildings out the windows. And Sarah Tomenah’s costuming accurately and amusing defines character, with Arlene’s prim kindergarten-teacher outfits, Jerry’s khakis and sweater vests, Mike’s Midwestern-guy flannel shirt and work boots. Not to mention stage manager Louis, whose layered, belted, glam lumberjack get-up immediately gets our attention.
In fact, Jerry Downey’s hilarious, eccentric Louis is the one character we can’t stop watching.
He isn’t generic at all, not just any stage manager, but this guy, with his hair caught up in excited little-girl tufts and his manic insistence that each set of items on the rehearsal hall table be exactly, measurably, the same distance from the others. Downey hangs onto a thoroughly snippy and convincing British accent (kudos to dialect coach Krista Scott) and is eye-rollingly unfazed by the drama around him—but he loses his mind every time his boyfriend calls him at work. Between the expletives and the exasperated sighs, we sense the beating heart of a real person. We haven’t seen Louis before, and he’s great.
The play’s Broadway babble—mentions of the actor-filled Edison Hotel or the Westway Diner on Ninth Avenue, an all-hours comfort-food haven for Broadway babies—is fun to hear. But all in all, we’d rather be back in Buffalo.