Why do people go to the theatre, asks Lawrence Casler’s tight little play in two quick acts, A NIGHT IN THE THEATRE. To get the answer to this poser, we join a foursome, the Paces and the Lockers, seating themselves at curtain’s rise to attend the new HAMLET at the Velmor-Kelman Theater last week (next month? 1974? We don’t care. The question is timeless). We sit with them through the performance as they attend not so much to it as to their own notions of culture, propriety and the need to communicate at some future time (as the foursome pair into different combinations and talk, each one at some point turns to each other one and utters some intonation of the phrase, “We have to talk later.” )
This is a devilishly funny and crafty piece of work which can be staged in two ways. In one, we see but don’t hear actors miming HAMLET while we hear but don’t see the Lockers’ and Paces’ giving their Peyton Place whispers and strangled yells in response to the play, each other and other audience members.
In the version staged now at Village Playbox, we have the delight of seeing the four erstwhile patrons fumbling and grumbling about in the dark for dropped objects and treating their four seats (Why are they so far back? And they were so expensive!) as a personal backyard fence of self-absorption over which they chatter incessantly around each other, below each other, across each other and through each other.
Performing this pepper-paced piece are four comic actors of fine sense and skill. They have to be. They hold the stage the length of the play doing nothing but sitting still in chairs whispering. Well, mostly whispering. And we never stop laughing. They are marvelous.
Donna Pace, played with prim allure, frustration and great fashion sense by Elaine Bellin, and Margaret Locker, delivered by Shanna Morascini as a perfect, golden flower of womanhood who really knows certain types when she sees them, are two women with a lot in common. Men disrespect them. Of course, they would never disrespect each other.
Stanley Locker, presented in robustly comic, apish form by Ron Kelly as the macho jerk who can find sexual symbolism in a paper clip, and Walter Pace, given to us crisply and skillfully by Scott Mandel as the long-suffering man of intellect and sensitivity who knows a great many things even if not all of them are correct, are best friends. They don’t like each other all that much. They’re just best friends. It’s a guy thing.
This show is not a hoot.
It is 9.65 hoots.
There are two reasons it is not fully 10 hoots, and they are:
1) it’s not going to get to run 32 times and relax itself into the award-winner those actors are capable of bringing at full charge, and 2) my wife and I were the only people in the audience not associated with the play. The house was totally empty. We fell off our chairs anyway.
This is a crime. This play gives the belly a workout. It’s sharp wit and full-tilt pace will make it hard to breathe at times. This show doesn’t need an audience. It’s fabulous the way it is. Audiences need this show. Why? Why do people come to theatre?
The deeply pleasing comic circumstance of the play is that, despite not having heard or understood any of the HAMLET which they, for culture’s sake, came to experience, each character idiosyncratically comes to some revelation through one of Hamlet’s major themes. They didn’t hear it. They didn’t understand it. They went, it played, lives changed. Now that’s art.
Why do people come to the theatre? To change their lives. But don’t take my word for it. Come see this show. You may need it more than you know.
A NIGHT IN THE THEATRE
Directed by Joseph Caruso
Fri/Sat 8PM; Sat 2PM
The Village Playbox of Haddon Heights
First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights
7th and Green Street
Haddon Heights, NJ 08035