Also with: Kurt Deutsch, Marsha Dietlein, Michael Milhoan, Marian Mercer, Anna Gunn, Jay Karnes, Richard Burns, Cliff Foerster, George Grant, David Dukes.
Rotating cast members: Allan Arbus, Talia Balsam, Julia Campbell, Penny Fuller, James Handy, Audra Lindley, Robert Machray, Daniel McDonald, Lawrence Pressman, Mitchell Ryan, Cotter Smith, John Walcutt, Joe Basile, Frank Sharp.
Producer Joseph Stern is back, and with a fabulous production of a little-known gem, George M. Cohan’s “The Tavern.” Directed flawlessly by Tony Giordano, and using a veteran cast and high production values, the play builds in humor, becoming a wonderful, wacky kind of “Noises Off.” Robert Benchley wrote in Life magazine in 1920 that “one cannot help having a good time” at the play. The same remains true today.
On a rainy, thunder-filled night at the turn of this century, a number of people stop at a tavern on the road to Albany, seeking lodging. The first is a vagabond (Robin Gammell) who does not remember his name but does know that the tavern keeper (Jim Haynie) just shot at a woman hiding in the woodshed.
The tavern keeper finds the woman, Violet (Lindsay Crouse), who’s weak from walking and desperately trying to get to the governor to tell her tale of an earlier abuse. After she’s given a bed, who should appear but the governor (George Murdock), his wife (Marian Mercer), his daughter (Anna Gunn) and her upper-crust fiance (Jay Karnes), having been accosted and robbed on the road.
The tale takes off when Violet accuses the fiance of wrongdoing, and the vagabond, fond of drama, stirs up the situation. Add to this a sheriff (Charles Hallahan) and his men, and mayhem ensues.
Stern, who has been in New York for three years producing “Law and Order,” has managed to woo a mostly veteran group of actors by double casting, allowing members room to manage their other professional responsibilities. “There’s more talent in this town than in New York or London,” said Stern after the play opening night, “and we’ve just needed a way to get them in theater.”
The actors, who all rehearsed together, will be mixed and matched on a nightly basis. In this way, Stern has brought in the likes of Crouse, Hallahan, Talia Balsam and David Dukes.
The fact is, the approach seems to work well and seamlessly, with much credit to director Giordano. Even Gammell, who at first seems miscast as the vagabond — often referred to as “young man” and admired perhaps romantically by the governor’s young daughter, but who appears too old — wins the audience by his energy and odd charm. (Cotter Smith alternates in the role.)
Crouse creates a highly convincing Violet, a woman scorned — and wary. (Penny Fuller is the other Violet.) Hallahan and Dukes bring a delightful presence as, respectively, the sheriff and doctor, although they’re small, character roles. (James Handy and Lawrence Pressman play those parts, respectively, on other nights.)
The set design by Neil Peter Jampolis, utterly impressive for a 99-seat theater, so convincingly evokes rain that one is surprised at intermission to find it’s dry outside. Alan Armstrong’s costume design is lavish, with just one misstep: the modern-looking rubber boots worn by the confused tavern assistant, hilariously played by Michael Milhoan on opening night.
Lights by Jane Reisman and sound by Matthew Beville add well to the whole.
The play runs through Feb. 13 — enough time for auds to catch different nights for different interpretations.