A delightful comedy by the late Oliver Hailey, about backstage battles of actors rehearsing a dreadful melodrama, features solid performances and fine writing.
Hailey based his play on his experiences as the author of three Broadway plays that opened and closed in one night, which earned him a mention in the “Guinness Book of World Records.” (Hailey’s credits include the acclaimed “Father’s Day,””For Use of the Hall” and “Who’s Happy Now.”)
His wife, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (“A Woman of Independent Means”), worked to complete this play from her husband’s extensive notes, which he began before a 10-year battle with Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
Story is structured as a play within a play, as actors rehearse the tale of a West Texas couple, David (Vaughn Armstrong) and Peggy (Wendie Malick), who are mourning the death of their daughter Mary Belle (Rachel Alice), who continually appears as an apparition, pushing her bicycle, jumping rope or rollerblading.
Into their despair comes Johnny (William Jones), a hometown boy who was Peggy’s first love and who returns home to proclaim his homosexuality and his undying love for David.
As they slog through this mock-serious melodrama, which is brilliantly parodied by Hailey, the actors break off into battles over who owns the scene and what the play is really about. The actress playing Peggy is obviously the expert, proudly declaring that she sat down and thought about the play “for one entire evening.” Presiding over all this thespian dysfunction is director Tom (Tom Troupe), who tap-dances to relieve stress.
While backstage comedies cover familiar ground, Hailey brings a darkness to the proceedings, particularly in the haunting if clumsy evocations of death, despair and unrequited love in the melodrama.
Underneath the laughter, it is clear that there is real tragedy at work in the patently bad play within in the play. A particularly macabre note is that the fictional author of the play committed suicide two days before opening when he realized that audiences were laughing at his heartfelt drama. Though this avenue is never fully explored, it does conjure a dark specter that floats through the play.
Performances are well-crafted, with Malick doing a delicious, skillful turn as the angry, narcissistic actress who still touches something deep and real in her role as the disconsolate Texas housewife.
Armstrong is also fine, both as the clueless husband and as the leading man who takes perverse pride in phoning in every performance. Jones finds the right note as the good-natured Johnny, and as the drunken second-banana actor. Alice is hilariously earnest as the dead daughter, and Troupe is winningly world-weary as the director.
Director Marcia Rodd shows real sensitivity to the ironic, bittersweet nature of the piece; she, Elizabeth Hailey and producer Cynthia Baer have created a fitting encomium to a gifted writer who left his mark both on the American theater scene and on the stages of Los Angeles.