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Posted May 5, 2011, 6:33 pm
The Invisible Theatre production of “Premier!” is billed as “a charming comedy.” And it certainly is. It also has just enough gravitas in its post-modern musings to make it a bit more than that without interfering with the laughs.
“Premier!” was among the final works by noted playwright Dale Wasserman. Wasserman wrote the stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest” and the book for the 1965 musical, “Man of La Mancha.” He also wrote the screenplay for “The Vikings” (1959) and the movie, “Man of La Mancha” (1972) and was among the slew of writers who worked on “Cleopatra” (1963). He was an Arizona resident and still writing at the time of his death in 2008 at age 94.
The premise of “Premier!” is that on the eve of yet another hit comedy, Gil Fryman, wants to be taken more seriously. A highly successful playwright of Neil Simon-ish proportions and attributes, he rails against being pigeon-holed by his fans and critics. Gil imagines ghostwriting “Alcibiades,” a supposedly long-lost tragedy by Shakespeare, and having it accepted as coming from the Bard’s own hand. (Alcibiades is a Greek general who also appears in one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, “Timon of Athens.”) Once the praise starts to roll in for the newly-found work, he will be able to step up and claim his laurels, demonstrating that he is far more than a writer of simple jokes and one-liners.
His wife, Rebecca, recognizes his need for more substantial critical acclaim. Fortunately, her father, Dr. Eli Brand, is a lifelong collector of rare and antique books, though not so much a reader. As a result, his collection is so vast and unexplored that it just might contain the lost “Alcibiades.” To see if it does, Professor Justinia Hawkins, has arranged to review the collection a few months hence.
This gives Gil time to both pen the faux-Shakespeare and have it turned into a credibly authentic forgery, good enough to fool Hawkins, an expert on both Shakespeare and antiquarian books. For this he turns to an erudite career forger of documents and art, Lefty Guggenheim (get it?).
Add to this mix, Rebecca’s brother, Peter Brand, who is also Gil’s manager. He has his own interests in keeping Gil’s lucrative laugh factory running at full capacity.
Wasserman manages to embed some post-modernist musings in the action. For instance, if the fake object is indistinguishable from the authentic, what precisely is the difference between them? Is authenticity necessary? He also name-checks Neil Simon, references playwright Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” and riffs on various works of literature.
Robert Anthony Peters plays Gil, making his debut on the Invisible Theatre stage. In this case, he brings a certain Alan Alda-ish quality to his speech that manages to enhance and expand the play’s Neil Simon allusion. Dallas Thomas as Rebecca, his wife, is sincere, fun and perky. Joe Hubbard, also making his IT debut, plays Peter Brand with youthful enthusiasm.
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However, it’s the ancillary characters that really add the spice to “Premier!” Victoria McGee as Professor Hawkins provides a bit of slapstick and hysteria to the proceedings. Nick Cianciotto’s Lefty Guggenheim offers a measured and suave performance. One can imagine a pleasant evening of just Cianciotto’s Lefty eloquently elucidatin’ about art and stuff, struggling to keep his thick New York accent from making him sound like an ignorant lug.
Best of all is Roberto Guajardo as Dr. Brand. Guajardo is a popular regional actor and longtime IT favorite who frequently works with other companies around town. Guajardo does more expressive acting (and reacting) before intermission, than most actors do in a week. And that’s just from his eyes up.
Also of note was the finely tuned sound design by Gail Fitzhugh, which enhanced the show significantly without drawing attention to itself.
Directed by James Blair, “Premier!” brings the curtain down on the Invisible Theatre’s 40th season on a high note.