An amusing, delicately contrived parlor comedy, Ferenc Molnar’s 82-year-old fancy, “The Play’s the Thing,” is structured upon a once fashionable theatrical style rarely seen on today’s stages. Set on the Italian Riviera in the twenties, it’s the kind of drawing room romp that often catered to summer stock audiences more than a half-century ago. Offered as seasonal spring froth by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, the seldom performed conceit may be a tad weightless, but as staged by Joe Discher, it is visually stunning and deliciously acted.
A worldly dramatist and his blowzy collaborator settle into a posh Riviera castle with their composer protege. They happen to overhear a romantic encounter in the adjoining suite between the composer’s fiancee and a roguish actor. The playwright fashions an ardently passionate script that includes the overheard dialogue to appease the heartbroken and suicidal songwriter, consequently tricking him into thinking the couple next door were only rehearsing their roles. The setup is droll and to the point, and when the little charade is acted out, it serves for a decidedly unharnessed and broadly farcical finale.
Sandor, the vain and worldly dramatist — a role once played by opera star Ezio Pinza in a straw-hat revival at Westport Country Playhouse — is amusingly drawn by Mark Jacoby. As the playwright, “on the shady side of fifty,” Jacoby defines the effete and plotting writer with pointed dash and Noel Coward-esque flair.
As the fickle prima donna in a lavish display of silken robes and frilly gowns, Caralyn Koslowski parades about with dizzy allure. Robert Gomes defines the role of a preening ham actor, and awfully good too is Greg Jackson as the frantic and fussy social secretary. Colin McPhillamy provides a crisp account of Sandor’s exasperated colleague.
In remarkable contrast to the gruff midwestern tavern owner he portrayed for the N.J. Rep last winter in “Don’t Hug Me,” John Little steals every scene he appears in as an annoyingly correct Transylvanian butler. No writer has ever crafted the role of a valet as well as P. G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves, who adapted the play from Hungarian scribe Molnar.
Discher’s staging is remarkably tight, leaving no room for yawns. The stylish production is an eye-candy feast. The drawing room as designed by Jesse Dreikosen is a richly furnished affair with an armored knight, a bust of the Bard, lavish furnishings and a picture-postcard balcony view of a Riviera mountain lake. Brian Russman’s period threads are equally elegant.