The mission of the Mint Theatre, operating out of a tiny black box theatre on West 43rd Street in an office building, is to unearth, to present and preserve forgotten plays of merit. In notes presented in the program, it is claimed that the programming of the theatre’s producing artistic director Jonathan Banks is arranged so that “we not only produce lost plays, but we are also their advocates.” It becomes, of course, a matter of personal taste as to what constitutes “important plays with valuable lessons to teach – plays that have been discarded or ignored”, which is, again, what the program states as its objective.
In the past several seasons, we’ve been treated to lesser known plays by established writers like John Van Druten, Dawn Powell and George Kelly. We’ve been exposed to writers hardly known in this country, who have had great success on their home turf. One such would certainly be Teresa Deevy. Novelists who’ve only rarely written plays would include Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Banks has a long list of excellent loyal actors to whom he has given employment with the two or three projects he offers each season on his main stage, in addition to readings and workshops. His productions are always first rate, and some of the scenic, lighting and costume designs have been worthy of the best of Broadway, put together on a fraction of the big time costs.
Which brings us to the specifics of Donogoo, A Comedy in 23 Tableaux by Jules Romains as translated and directed by Gus Kaikkonen, who performed both tasks on another Romains play, Dr. Knock at the Mint in 2010.
This satirical farce began life as a French novel in 1920. It took 10 years to figure out a way to mount it on stage as a play. But it has only appeared once again, in 1961. I can’t seem to locate reviews of its life on the French stage and my research has not turned up any news of a life in the USA, on or off Broadway.
As it requires a cast of 14 to play 46 characters and its 23 tableaux are set everywhere from a Paris bridge to the jungles of Brazil, with need for offices, terraces, streets, conference rooms, cafes, banks, an Automat, an open air restaurant, an overgrown ravine, a riverbank, the deck of an ocean liner and so much more, it is clearly a movie pretending to be a play.
And because its two acts run for less than 2 1/2 hours, each of its scenes is lightning fast. Mr. Kaikkonen, I assume in an effort to hold our attention, has encouraged his cast to play the whole thing at a feverish pace, so that James Riordan, its stalwart leading man, would certainly win a prize a) for memory (some of the monologues would be IMPOSSIBLE to learn in lesser hands) and b) for clarity of diction.
The problem is the words that cascade from his lips are not funny, and as a result Mr. Riordan, whom I know to be a fine actor, has to resort to raised eyebrows, curled lips, astonished eyes, and all sorts of acting tricks I thought we’d seen the last of with the final fade out of silent films.
I don’t blame Mr. Riordan; I suspect at some point he realized the script was witless and heavily plotted, and it would be best to get it out there before anyone had a chance to notice, and just to let us know that Donogoo is really a play the Marx Brothers should have done when they were prancing around stages in Animal Crackers and Cocoanuts, the play is paced as though George S. Kaufman had supplied the words.
Supporting Mr. Riordan are such fine character actors as George Morfogen, Jay Patterson, Douglas Rees and Ross Bickell, a number of bright young actors like Dave Quay and Kraig Swartz. Megan Robinson, a female (the only one!) plays virtually everyone else, and is splendid.
I must say the projections of Roger Hanna and Price Johnston contributed mightily, and almost saved the day. But there is an old saying: “Beware the show where you come out of the theatre whistling the scenery”. Full disclosure makes me tell you that a lady in the elevator on the way out did say, “That was fun!” But I thought I detected a trace of “—wasn’t it?” underneath.
“A” for effort, but this satire, translated from another language, spoofing something from another era in another land, in this case reminded me of a flat soufflé.
Donogoo is onstage thru July 27, 2014 at the Mint Theatre, 311 W 43rd St, NYC.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.