Review: ‘The Tavern’

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.

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 George M. Cohan’s “The Tavern,” directed flawlessly by Tony Giordano and using a veteran cast and high production values. Robert Benchley wrote in Life magazine in 1920 that “one cannot help having a good time” at the play. The same remains true in 1993.

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 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.

Stern, who has been in New York for three years producing “Law and Order,” has double-cast the piece, allowing actors to manage other professional responsibilities.

The actors, who all rehearsed together, will be mixed and matched on a nightly basis.

The approach seems to work well, with much credit to director Giordano. Even Gammell, who at first seems miscast as the vagabond, 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.) Charles Hallahan and David Duke bring delightful presence to their small character roles. (James Handy and Lawrence Pressman play those roles, respectively, on other nights.)

Set design by Neil Peter Jampolis is impressive, and the rain is evoked so convincingly that one is surprised at intermission to find that 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 people to catch different nights for different interpretations.

The Tavern

(Matrix Theatre, Hollywood; 99 seats; $ 19.50 top)

Production

The Matrix Theatre Co. presents a comedy in two acts by George M. Cohan; directed by Tony Giordano; produced by Joseph Stern.

Creative

Sets, Neil Peter Jampolis; lighting, Jane Reisman; costumes, Alan Armstrong; sound design, Matthew Beville. Opened, reviewed Dec. 4, 1993; runs through Feb. 13.

Cast

Vagabond ... Robin Gammell Violet ... Lindsay Crouse Sheriff ... Charles Hallahan Freeman ... Jim Haynie Governor ... George Murdock
With: Kurt Deutsch, Marsha Dietlein, Michael Milhoan, Marian Mercer, Anna Gunn, Jay Karnes, Richard Burns, Cliff Foerster, George Grant, David Dukes.
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