The Play’s The Thing, presented by Soulpepper for the third time in the company’s 17-year lifespan, is a big airy cream-puff of a play; a juicy, over-ripe peach that is nonetheless a treat. Written by Ferenc Molnár (known for Liliom, the basis for the musical Carousel) and adapted in 1926 by P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves and Wooster fame, it’s not a deep play, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Rather, it’s a play about plays, a delightfully sly send-up of the conventions and form of the well-made play, with a dollop of farce on top. Its references are irreverent, its artifice the most natural thing in the world.
Arriving early and in secret to a castle hotel, renowned playwright Sandor Turai (Diego Matamoros), his beleaguered collaborator Mansky (William Webster) and their 25-year-old composer Albert Adam (Gordon Hecht), raised from obscurity to write the score of their new operetta, have a romantic surprise planned for Albert’s fiancée, primadonna Ilona Szabo (Raquel Duffy). Instead, they are surprised by something dreadful heard through the paper-thin walls; Ilona is having a heated conversation with an old mentor and flame, Almady (C. David Johnston), and her protestations seem less than genuine. Fearing for his protégé and his new operetta, Turai must do something to fix the relationship. What can he do, as a mise-en-scène Machiavelli, but rewrite the ending?
The title refers to Hamlet’s play within a play, with which he intends to out his uncle’s nefarious actions. That’s a tragedy, though, and this is anything but, so this play within a play seeks to conceal actions, rather than bring them to light.
The Play’s The Thing is positioned as “a love letter to the theatre,” and, as such, there is a lot of theatre’s version of “inside baseball.” You don’t have to be a longstanding theatre patron to enjoy the show, but the more you know of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Sardou, the more you’ll appreciate it. The “well-made play” features mechanics over characterization, dramatic irony, crucial information being kept from characters, letters, reversals of fortune and a build to a frenetic climax. It’s all here, and it’s all underlined, with knowing looks and direct audience address.
The meta-theatre features the play’s smartest and most intriguing writing, whether showing the audience how difficult it is to begin a play, or, later, how to leave them hanging at intermission. Julie Fox’s set is ornately minimalist, but that’s okay, because the characters tell us where we are (it’s much more expedient that way). There’s an ever-present feeling of theatricality provided by the large frame that is empty, save for the curtain behind it.
The acting elevates the entertaining but light script. Webster, Matamoros and Johnston are all reprising their roles (young lovers, of course, have an expiration date). There’s a little rust to the bluster in the opening act, but the rhythms settle down quite nicely as the speed increases. Webster and Matamoros, the writing team, create the touching dynamic of an old married couple, a rare spot of calm and quiet even amidst their own bickering.
Oliver Dennis stands out as the slightly mad but ineffably calm Dwornitschek, a butler worthy of a Wodehouse story, a minor character desperate to let us know a little more about himself. Hecht gets his chance to shine during the choose-your-own-adventure type ending of the second act. The character of Ilona isn’t given quite as concrete of a personality by the playwright, but Duffy gets some good mileage out of the actress’ overblown passions and difficulty in learning her lines.
Johnson’s pompous Almady gets the biggest laughs of the night with even a mere eyebrow raise. The contrast between his outraged protestations and quiet admissions of defeat is beautifully timed, as are his attempts to pronounce the increasingly ridiculous French names Turai punishes him with in the final act’s manic ghostwritten Sardou play, which pulls out all the stops, its florid prose allowing each character in the know to fully express how they feel about each other.
Appearing only in this act, Gregory Prest as the castle’s entertainment secretary acts as the hilarious outsider and surrogate audience member to this theatrical world, all nerves, self-absorption, and botched cues. By the end, though, it was clear that he was in love, eager to see what was going to happen, dazzled by the magic that is often inexplicably made from spun air.
As was I.
- The Play’s The Thing plays at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane), until October 14th. See Soulpepper’s website for specific dates and times.
- Matinees are at 1:30 and evening performances at 7:30.
- Tickets range from $29.50 (-$94.00.
- Warning: Herbal cigarettes are smoked onstage.
Photo of C. David Johnson, Gregory Prest and Raquel Duffy by Cylla von Tiewdemann