City Lit Theater Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center

“We shall soon have Christmas down our throats,” P.G. Wodehouse once said. In that merry but wary spirit, City Lit Theater Company has turned to the British humorist for a holiday entertainment not overly bedecked with boughs of holly. Right Ho, Jeeves is Mark Richard’s adaptation of Wodehouse’s 1934 novel–one of a long string of stories about “chinless wonder” Bertram Wilberforce (“Bertie”) Wooster, an idle aristocrat with barely enough brain power to activate his motor functions, and his valet Jeeves, whose subtle manipulations repeatedly extricate Bertie and his buddies from one ridiculous jam after another.

Wodehouse’s reputation, for better and for worse (his fans included Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc, who called him “the best writer of our time,” while Sean O’Casey dismissed him as “literature’s performing flea”), stems from an uncanny ability to make the idiotic actions of a socially inbred caste of useless nincompoops entertaining. Where a writer like Waugh used such characters to satirize the decline of the British Empire, the benevolent Wodehouse had about as much capacity for mockery as Bertie, with his all-purpose put-down “Tinkerty-tonk.” Wodehouse simply found such people funny–the perfect population for a writing style he described as “a sort of musical comedy without music.” Reading him is like spending a couple of hours in meaningless, mind-clearing gossip–but articulate gossip, for his glibly chatty prose is bright, efficient, and amusing, with its jazzy juxtapositions of upper-class stuffiness and smart-alecky slang. (“The chap I know . . . has a face like a fish,” Bertie tells Jeeves in an attempt to confirm a friend’s surprise appearance in London. “Possibly there was a certain suggestion of the piscine, sir,” is the butler’s ever-proper response.)

Right Ho, Jeeves is perfect Wodehouse, and this production–which preserves much of Bertie’s first-person narration as well as the snappy dialogue–nicely transfers his work from page to stage (it’s mounted in the same venue as City Lit’s more ambitious but less satisfactory The White Paper, the Chicago Cultural Center studio theater, a one-time reading room). Though this show lacks the elegant detail and madcap zaniness of the recent PBS versions of Wodehouse’s tales, it’s a far more accurate rendition of Wodehouse’s ingenious style, and makes for a very diverting couple of hours.

Following the usual formula, the plot concerns Bertie’s efforts to help his supershy school pal Gussie Fink-Nottle win the hand of Madeline Bassett. Since Gussie’s entire understanding of courtship comes from his extensive studies of the social habits of the newt, he needs some guidance, and Bertie undertakes to provide it–driven partly by his resentment at Gussie’s (and everyone else’s) presumption that while Bertie is a nice chap, it’s Jeeves who’s the brains of the household.

Of course, Bertie makes everything worse rather than better; he ends up getting engaged to Madeline himself, and also mucks up the lives of his aunt Dahlia, her daughter Angela, Angela’s fiance Tuppy Glossop, even his aunt’s French chef. Leave it to Jeeves to sort things out, until finally the story is, as Bertie puts it, “positively stiff with happy endings”–including the solution to a running disagreement between Bertie and Jeeves over a white dinner jacket that Jeeves deems acceptable for a Cannes casino but wholly inappropriate for London.

Under Patrick Trettenero’s direction, the actors sketch deft caricatures of the standard Wodehouse types. Mark Richard is a pleasantly clueless Bertie; off-Loop theater veteran Kenneth Northcott (far older than Stephen Fry’s youthfully vigorous Jeeves in the TV version) is a genial but resolute butler in the John Gielgud mold (he even looks like Gielgud, with his aristocratic nose and thin lips); Kevin McCoy is a cutely vulnerable Gussie (though he overplays an extended drunk bit); Gavin Witt is a properly bullheaded Tuppy; and Kim Werkman is delightfully mischievous as Angela, intent on making Tuppy squirm because he doubts she was attacked by a shark on the Riviera. The two standout performances, notable for their stylish eccentricity, come from Amelia Barrett as Gussie’s beloved Madeline–she conveys the sort of wonderfully off-kilter drippiness that was the specialty of actresses like Joyce Grenfell in the 50s and Eleanor Bron in the 60s–and Judith West as the redoubtable Aunt Dahlia, who in full bellow sounds very much like the roaring mastodon to which Wodehouse compared bellowing aunts.

Mark Netherland’s discreetly deco set and Marguerite Picard’s costumes are evocative as well as economical; and for those so inclined, the show is augmented at weekend matinees by a “Charming Tea” complete with scones and cucumber sandwiches, served outside the theater by the Uncommon Ground espresso bar.

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