The debut production of Best Medicine Rep, a new theater company dedicated to comedy, is not really a comedy. The Consul, The Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart, written by artistic director John Morogiello, is more of an historical drama with comedic elements and a light heart about the serious issues it raises. The play supports its recounting of the Third Reich’s attempt to censor Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler satire The Great Dictator with a winning cast and plenty of bon mots, but is more of a nod-your-head-in-appreciation experience than a laugh-out-loud one.
And there is much to appreciate. The historical moment the play captures is fascinating and troubling, and Morogiello has clearly done his research (tempered with some artistic license). It seems that Hollywood, during the time of Hitler’s rise before the war, was bullied and obligated – sometimes all too happily – into acquiescing to the demands of the German market, up to and including removing Jews from roles. Money talks, as it does to Mary Pickford (Lori Boyd), former America’s Sweetheart and now one of the most powerful women in Hollywood as head of United Artists studio, which she co-founded along with Chaplin.
She finds herself in a tough position when her company’s bottom line is threatened by George Gyssling, the German consul (Terence Heffernan). He has learned that Chaplin intends to spoof Hitler, and is willing to deny United Artists all future access to the lucrative German market if the production is not shut down. Heffernan plays the proud Nazi with the cheerful insouciance of one too certain his side will win, striking a nice balance between mustache-twirling villain and regular, almost neighborly, human being.
The proceedings are not as heavy as they may sound, largely thanks to contributions of Miss Hollombe (Emily Sucher) as narrator. Hollombe, Pickford’s secretary, who at her “first job, the second day, [is already getting] the Third Reich” swirls the history around and restages scenes for our benefit. Sucher brings a fizzy energy to the only non-historical personage in the play, and ably lands the few real rib-tickling lines that Morogiello provides.
The biggest laughs instead are borrowed, in scenes recreated from Chaplin’s works by actor John Tweel, who makes his impersonation look as effortless and effervescent as Chaplin did. Tweel is utterly charming as well as Chaplin the everyday man, with a fiery moral purpose beneath his playfulness. As such, he enters into a battle of lies, denials, and passions with Gyssling – at one point erupting into a boxing match a la Modern Times – with Pickford in the middle.
The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart
closes February 10, 2018
Details and tickets
Boyd, it must be said, is dealing with a role she cannot enliven even with her natural charisma. It may be the script or a directorial choice, but she is saddled with merely repeating the same argument about needing money over and over, without any hint that she might side with Chaplin. Perhaps a different approach may have worked – and I suspect the ensemble as a whole will tighten up as the show goes on – but the repetitive debate scenes sag between the Chaplin movie and narrator bits.
The play has had much success around the country, and I am inclined to suggest the overall cause of this production’s slackness in the comedy department is the challenge of opening a new company. Best Medicine Rep performs in Lakeforest Mall, in a large carpeted room they protect from the sounds of shoppers as well as they can manage. Director Stan Levin choreographs the actors, and a couple of 30’s-era chairs and desks, ably about the room in the midst of a single circle of audience seating. Elizabeth Kemmerer provides crisp period costuming. No fancy technical elements here, but of course none are needed to put on a great show, and the up-close-and-personal nature of the space serves the cast well as they connect to us.
It’s a debut at once a little confounding and quite auspicious for this new company. They have successfully met half their mission statement in establishing a high-quality professional theatre in the otherwise underserved reaches of Montgomery County. One hopes that they follow through on the other half, of setting themselves “apart from other Washington theatre companies” by focusing exclusively on comedy, and find a clearer congruence between what they say they want to do and what they put on stage. Until then, one could do worse than this smart and engaging show even if it seems to be off-brand right off the bat.
The Consul, The Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart by John Morogiello . Directed by Stan Levin . Featuring Lori Boyd, Terence Heffernan, Emily Sucher, John Tweel . Costume Design: Elizabeth Kemmerer . Lighting Design: Eddy Amani . Stage Manager: Mark Kerr . Produced by Best Medicine Rep . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.