Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Theatre: The Play's The Thing

The Play's The Thing is a three-act play written in the 1920s by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár and adapted into English by P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Jeeves and Wooster series).  It was inspired by an amusing incident that happened to Molnár.  Returning home early one day, he overheard his actress wife declaring her love for her German tutor.  Rushing furiously into the room, he sheepishly discovered that they were merely practicing speaking German by reading the dialogue from a sultry play.  Molnár twists around this idea to form the basis of his play.

Playwright collaborators Sandor Turai and Mansky accompany their young composer Albert Adam to an Italian castle to surprise Albert's fiancee, the prima donna Ilona Szabo.  The trio accidentally overhear Ilona in a passionate interaction with her former lover, the married actor Almady.  Albert is crushed and threatens to tear up the music that he has written for his betrothed, which would be a major setback to Turai and Mansky's new operetta.  Mansky laments "if he tears up his music and kills the prima dona, what sort of first night would we have?"¹    Sandor devises a plot to convince Albert that Ilona and Almady were merely rehearsing lines from a play.  

*Photo by by Cylla von Tiewdemann
Working all night, Sandor feverishly writes a new play that incorporates the  amorous conversation overheard between Ilona and Almady.  Wishing to avoid a scandal that could result in the end of Ilona's engagement and Almady's marriage, the two agree to quickly learn the play and perform it at a scheduled festival the next day.  The play must include lines like "I'm crazy about you and you used me up and squeezed me like a lemon and now you want to throw me away..."¹ and "Come let me kiss your beautiful classic brow"¹.  In order to account for Almady's declaration of "My god, how round it is, how smooth, how velvety, round and fragrant .. let me take a bite"¹, in possible reference to Ilona's breast or buttocks, Sandor spins a ridiculous tale about an unfaithful fruit grower whose most cherished possession is his prized peach.  In order to punish Almady for the trouble that he has caused, Sandor writes Almady's character in the play as a vain imbecile and gives him speeches where he has to remember and pronounce overly long names of people and places.  This becomes a continual running joke as the play is performed during a dress rehearsal that takes place in front of Mansky and Albert.

Two minor characters provide additional comic relief in the play.  The prim and proper, ultra-competent and discreet Jeeves-like butler Dwornitschek acts as a sounding board for Turai and provides him with important information regarding Ilona and Almady's dalliances and flirtation prior to the arrival of Turai and his group.  Even funnier is the frazzled stage assistant Mel who is responsible for the props for play (where's the peach?  I can't believe he ate our only peach!), prompting lines for the actors, and providing the sound effects, which he does at all the wrong times.

In addition to the main play within a play plot device, The Play's The Thing uses meta-references to spoof the theatre world and the art of play-writing itself.   The performance opens with the trio of Turai, Mansky and Adams sitting in silence in the dark, with only the glow of their lit cigarettes for lighting.  The silence goes on for so long that the audience starts to twitter and wonder whether there is a technical problem.  But then they start to speak as the two playwrights discuss how difficult it is to start a play.  Turai insists that the direct approach is best and so the three proceed to break the fourth wall by addressing the audience and introducing themselves, their setting and their reason for gathering.  A similar discussion arises when the three debate how to end the second act, with each one offering a different suggestion.  Mansky proposes a toast to the fickleness of women, Albert suggests smashing his glass after the toast and stabbing himself with a bread knife in an expression of his anguish over Ilona's betrayal, but Sandor insists that there be a cliffhanger ending and proceeds to bring that about.

                                                 *Middle Photo by by Cylla von Tiewdemann

The staging and set design for the play is relatively sparse, relying on a pair of chandeliers, a giant, gilded empty picture frame and some period furniture and doors to represent a room within an Italian castle.  Interestingly, Ilona and Almady are not shown while they are carrying on their incriminating conversation.  Their voices are heard emanating from behind a closed door, so that the audience is overhearing them in the same way as Turai, Mansky and Albert.  This allows the audience to imagine what is happening based only on the words spoken, making it all the more delicious when we see how Turai has interpreted these words in his play.  Contrast this with the staging in a version of the play performed in Brussels, where the prima dona and actor are shown behind the door.

The performers playing Turai, Mansky and Almady came out for a "talkback" Q&A session after the show.  All three of them played these same roles the previous two times that the show was mounted, back in 1999 and 2003.  They talked about the relationship between Mansky and Turai, who acted like an old married couple.  They explained that when P.G. Wodehouse adapted the play into English, he captured the nuances of the original and perhaps made the role of the butler a bit more like his own famous Jeeves character.  They revealed that the jokes regarding the big long names spoken by Almady were originally in Molnár's Hungarian play, and that for some reason, when performed in Ottawa, the audience did not find it that funny. This is surprising because our audience thought it was hilarious and roared so loud with laughter that we missed Almady's next words after each iteration.

¹ The Play's The Thing by Ferenc Molnár; Adapted by P.G.Wodehouse

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