Decades before the onstage ham and backstage lunacy of “Noises Off,” there was George Kelly’s “The Torch-Bearers,” a genteel but seemingly charmless comedy centering on the pretensions of the “Little Theater” movement in the early 20th century and the stage dreams of local players. The Williamstown Theater Festival dusts off this 1922 period piece, and though it invests the show with top actors and designers, the production fails to find the key to unlock any treasures that might lie buried.
Despite a trim by film and stage thesp Dylan Baker, who also helms, the arch play plods along for more than two hours, never finding an agreeable or consistent tone that invites auds into Kelly’s somewhat precious, very old-fashioned world.
Kelly and this ensemble cast (of many WTF vets) make light fun of the pomposity of community theater. But the piece doesn’t gain much comedic traction until a scene that takes place backstage during a misguided performance in which everything goes terribly and comically wrong.
The production was originally cast with real-life stage doyenne Marian Seldes as Mrs. J. Pampinelli, a grand Philadelphia dame leading these theatrical wannabes with talk of “the Method” and capital-“A” Art. Last-minute replacement Katherine McGrath gives a serviceable perf, but without a larger-than-life personality that could have infused the less-than-stellar dialogue with some comic oomph, this central character quickly becomes tedious.
The play centers on parlor rehearsal, performance and the aftermath of a community theater production of a piece of twaddle called “One of Those Things.” Understudy Paula Ritter (Becky Ann Baker), a sweet upper-crust matron, steps into a leading role when the husband of the show’s previous star, Clara Sheppard (Jessica Hecht), drops dead. The show-must-go-on credo excites the little company led by Pampinelli and prompter Nelly Fell (a hilarious Andrea Martin, who tries to salvage any bits of comic business she can find).
The only one who doesn’t get swept up in the magic and the mayhem of this local theatrical endeavor is Paula’s common-sense husband, Frederick (John Rubinstein, giving a smooth, centered perf). Amateur thesps played by Edward Herrmann, Katie Finneran and Philip Goodwin have their amusing small moments of bad acting. Hecht gives a particularly eccentric perf — and not in a good way — as the new widow who returns to the ensemble on the night of the show.
Production is elegantly costumed by Ilona Somogyi and handsomely designed by David Korins. Rui Rita does some clever lighting, presenting the show-within-the show as seen backstage through the shadows on the stage flats. The community theater’s disastrous production offers some laughs as the scenery wavers, sound effects miscued and actors panicking.
“You don’t mind me going on, do you Fred?” Mrs. Ritter asks her sensible husband of her theatrical aspirations, to which he responds, “No, I don’t mind, if you’re able to get away with it.” Minor pleasures aside, this production doesn’t.