Mark Jacoby and Jared Zeus
in The Play's the Thing
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Mark Jacoby and Jared Zeus
in The Play's the Thing
(© Gerry Goodstein)
How soothing and soul-comforting is the appeal of the well-made play in these post-Sopranos, post-modern times. Despite a healthy dose of self-referentiality, the very old-fashionedness of Ferenc Molnar's The Play's the Thing, now being presented at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, feels invigorating. Moreover, the company has, for the most part, found the proper airy tone for this soufflé-like comedy.

The opening tableau consists of three men in dinner jackets looking out over a picturesque lake. At once we feel secure: Can anything really terrible happen in dinner dress? While visiting a luxurious castle on the Italian Riviera in the 1920s, wealthy playwright Sandor Turai (Mark Jacoby, channeling Rex Harrison) and his writing team -- consisting of stuffy partner Mansky (Colin McPhillamy) and Sandor's godson, naïve young composer Albert Adam (Jared Zeus) -- overhear a compromising declaration of love in the next room. Unfortunately, the lady in question, winsome prima donna Ilona (the doll-like Carolyn Kozlowski), is the young composer's beloved.

After the sweet-faced boy is put to bed, Sandor orders an enormous breakfast from deadpan butler Dwornitschek (John Little, who hits each comic, solemn note to perfection) and comes up with a plan -- one which makes the most of his playwriting skills: He dashes off a play-within-a-play. As a result, Ilona and Almady (Robert Gomes) learn a scene which uses their overheard dialogue, and then pretend that they were rehearsing the night before. We don't get to see that bit of glorious nonsense until the play's final act, but it's not only well worth the wait; it's worth the price of admission.

The sketch, which Sandor claims is a long-forgotten piece by French boulevard playwright Sardou, lets us in on brilliantly conceived double-talk and thespian humiliation. Some of the jokes are merely riffs on long French names, but French names still sound funny to English-speakers. Director Joe Discher (who also designed the sound) understands the over-the-top buffoonery and makes the most of it. For example, he's not above business involving a silly tri-color hat and a feather in the lady's face. (Brian Russman's costumes are a feast for the eyes.)

However, he does rather less well with the first act's set-up, with the result that we get far ahead of the plot. Moreover, several members of the cast, particularly Gomes, push too hard. Like Ilona, he's an actor, so his posturing has point, but where Kozlowski's self-conscious attitudinizing charms, his annoys. As Mansky, McPhillamy waffles between bland and bluster. At times, even Jacoby's louche Sandor winks at himself a bit too much. Emphasizing style over the emotional panic beneath the farce deadens the pace.

Yet all is forgiven in the pay-off. There's even a touch of Pirandellian metatheatre in watching the playwright within a play manipulate the company. Eventually, Almady's frustration with his overwritten role evokes thigh-slapping laughs -- and not only from meek, cringing Mr. Mell (played by Greg Jackson, who pouts convincingly as one of life's worriers). In the end, The Play's the Thing hits the spot as a summer refreshment for parched audiences as well.