In his 1927 play
The Torch-Bearers, now enjoying a game if inconsequential revival at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the late George Kelly gave a skit-worthy notion — the potential dreadfulness of amateur theatrics — the full two-hour treatment. Even as intelligently tweaked by adapter/director Dylan Baker and enacted by a dream cast, there’s just not enough humor or insight here to go the distance. Moreover, Kelly tended to pad the proceedings with the kind of slapstick that may have gone over big back in the day, but they mostly fizzle here and have outlived their power to charm.
Mr. Ritter (John Rubenstein) returns home from a business trip to find his doting wife (Becky Ann Baker) in thrall to the glamor of the stage. She has been asked to step in for the show’s original leading lady (Jessica Hecht), after the latter’s husband has fallen down dead at the fearsome sight of his spouse emoting. Ritter finds his drawing room (stultifyingly staid in David Korins’ spot-on design) turned topsy-turvy for a rehearsal, and his adored helpmeet in the clutches of an artsy cabal inspired by the grandiloquent director Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli (the magnificent Katherine McGrath, who knows how to elocute old-school), a pompous fraud. Worse, her acolytes are simply appalling, especially Miss Florence McCrickett (Katie Finneran), an ingenue with a tin ear and the attention span of a gnat.
While it all sounds like great fun, the laughs are sparingly distributed. Not surprisingly, Andrea Martin runs away with most of them as Mrs. Nelly Fell, Pampinelli’s “promptress” and supposed paramour. (The text does little to support this hypothesis, proferred in a pseudo-program for the play-within-the-play.) Gorgeously attired by costume designer Ilona Somogyi as a proto-flapper amid Edwardian holdovers, Martin gets the choicest of Kelly’s bon mots. For example, consoling the sidelined star over the phone, Nelly opines: “He was only your husband. It’s not as if you lost someone close to you.”
As the newly bereaved leading lady manqué, Hecht makes the utmost of her brief second-act cameo, packing a full characterization into a few brilliant gestures and vocalizations. (Her cry of mourning suggests a shrieking gecko, if geckos could shriek.) Edward Hermann is orally amusing, too, when he pipes, “I plan to use my upper register almost entirely.” Mostly though, he’s truly underutilized.
Also lurking throughout the proceedings, morosely, is the inevitable denouement: Mr. Ritter remains bemused right up until the point that his domestic stability appears threatened. His “critique” of his wife’s performance is downright cruel, as is a related prank. He puts the little woman right back in her subservient place, not only chastened but grateful.