City Lit Theater Company

at the Immediate Theatre

Perfectly reflective though they are of their own long-gone time and place–upper- and upper-middle-class England in the first third of this century–I can’t imagine P.G. Wodehouse’s comic stories and novels ever seeming dated. Some of the language, certainly, is quaint and peculiar to us now; but Wodehouse was showing, in such books as Leave It to Psmith (1924), how quaint and peculiar it was even when it was current. Wodehouse’s great gift, the result in part of his being an Englishman working in the American theater, was to recognize how inherently funny Englishness can be if looked at from the right perspective. That perspective, uniquely addled yet brilliant, is what keeps Wodehouse (rather like W.S. Gilbert) fresh long after his subject matter has gone stale.

Take Leave It to Psmith. Part farce, part boy-meets-girl romance, part Agatha Christie-style mystery (dark doings in a cozy English country manor), the piece might just be one more aged oddity today if it had been written by the usual run of author of Wodehouse’s day. True, the plot is exceptionally clever–a dizzying maze of coincidences, mistaken identities, and chance encounters that suddenly clicks in a sublime coming-together that’s absurd yet, considering the close-knittedness of a stratified class system, strangely logical. But the library shelves are packed with cleverly plotted books now collecting dust. Psmith shines on the strength of its author’s narrative style, a sleekly paced combination of slang, classical allusion, and oddball similes (a vexed husband gives a cough “like the bleat of a diffident sheep,” a distressed nobleman droops “like a wet sock,” a penniless lover is as “broke as the Ten Commandments”).

City Lit Theater, which specializes in literary adaptations, has previously presented two programs of Wodehouse’s popular “Bertie and Jeeves” stories in a “concert reading” format, in which the actors suggest rather than enact characters, working with text in hand, delivering both narration and dialogue. It’s an approach well suited to Wodehouse, because his droll and quirky commentary adds so much muscle to the screwball plots and farcical characterizations. Now City Lit is giving Leave It to Psmith in what it describes as a “fully staged” production; the attempt is praiseworthy, but the pickin’s is slim.

By trying to stage Psmith as a play, not a concert reading, director Michael Salvador and his cast are deprived of Wodehouse’s steady comic narrative as the story’s cement; the dialogue still sparkles in its loony way, but the narration adds a texture to the story that’s sadly missing from the stage (the few bits of narration that have been preserved seem arbitrary and hardly worth the trouble).

The other great thing about concert reading is that the actors don’t really have to be convincing in their characters, as long as they can speak the words. The actors in Psmith can speak pretty well but fall short of giving stage-worthy physical characterizations. Mark Richard, an actor with a special knack for playing a common fellow with the soul of an eccentric poet (as seen in Commons Theatre’s The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy and The Three Sisters), sounds fine but looks short and shabby as Psmith, the tall and impeccably dressed young gallant of Wodehouse’s imagination. Psmith is a great character–a plucky fellow with a mischievous instinct for persiflage and light larceny who infiltrates a doddering nobleman’s country estate in order to pursue a young lady and steal another lady’s necklace, all for the best of reasons–but as played by Richard he’s merely a nice but befuddled bloke out of his depth. Steve Abrahamson, playing the nobleman’s silly-ass son who recruits Psmith for robbery, has a fine speaking voice for the role but moves far too awkwardly, even considering the twittishness of his character. Lorell J. Wyatt is quite funny as Miss Peavey, a flaky poetess with a surprising secret, but the humor comes from Wyatt’s own naturally goofy stage presence, not from the characterization. The other actors, similarly, serve the words ably but don’t convince in their roles; preoccupied with the frantically busy plot, they don’t have time to establish onstage the peculiarities of personality that Wodehouse so memorably sketched in the book.

The one really original gesture in this production is Carl Forsberg’s clever set: a series of lightweight white cutout pieces (suggesting chairs, mantelpieces, windows, terrace railings, and so on) that pop up from the floor or slide on and off from the wings, giving the proceedings a cartoonish feel. (Some of the flats even have stenciled on them their identifications–for instance, “BUSH ACT 2”–in plain view of the audience.) The problem, at least on opening night, was that the somewhat clumsy and uncertain set changes slowed the pace of an already long show (about three hours); a gimmicky touch such as these set changes has to be perfectly timed or else it’s a cute idea that fails to be funny.

To be sure, there was plenty of laughter in the audience on opening night. Some of it came from a group of City Lit staff and supporters in response to certain bits of business that, while serviceable, could only really have been funny to someone who knew the actors. Most of the laughter came in response to the Wodehouse jokes, which are marvelous under just about any circumstances. But all too seldom was the laughter produced by that on-target meshing of material and execution that makes for real theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.