Just days before the eagerly awaited “Survivor” episode that found her banished from the Outback, “aspiring actress” Jerri Manthey hit the boards in BevHills in a new comedy by John Menkes. Though viewers of the reality gameshow might peg the comely but controlling contestant for the title role in “Lady Macbeth Gets a Divorce,” the part she plays is that of, well, an aspiring actress, more naive than conniving. Manthey has moments of sweet vulnerability and physical pizzazz — qualities that fizzle, along with the production as a whole. Dallying with some intriguing ideas, Menkes’ would-be screwball romp remains more schematic than compelling.
Drawing loosely from the Bard, the playwright sets up a contemporary exploration of all-too-universal themes and personalities: The ambitious wife whose perpetual disappointment in her mate becomes the marriage’s driving force; the fear of being alone that keeps people in the bitterest — or flimsiest — of entanglements.
The curtain opens on the modest living room of a house in a New England village, where Fiona (a one-dimensionally caustic Suzan Crowley) pores over herbal texts in search of the right poison.
Her plot is to serve a tainted shepherd’s pie to her husband’s 78-year-old uncle Duncan — a Scot, naturally — who’s arriving from the Coast with his new, much younger flame. Fearing that Duncan (Brendan Dillon), who’s made his fortune in film distribution, will disinherit his nephew and leave everything to Dilly (Manthey), Fiona has decided this is “a disaster I must prevent.”
Enter Freddie (the wonderfully beleaguered Bob Sherer), home from his weekly session with a licensed tarot therapist. A serial entrepreneurial failure whose ventures have included biodegradable underwear and ostrich burgers, Freddie now devotes himself to a moribund antiques business specializing in Staffordshire pottery.
When she’s not verbally destroying her husband, Fiona addresses an unseen member of the household, the ghost of a woman whose plan to murder her husband went awry. In a nice touch, the specter’s presence is signaled when a framed illustration from “Macbeth” glows above the mantel. (Contributions from lighting designer Brian Gaffikin and set designer Laura Weber are solid, if unexceptional.) But as the play unfolds, Fiona’s asides to the ghost grow tiresome; devoid of comic oomph or aphoristic flair, they do nothing to propel the story, and Crowley’s shrill performance is no help.
Freddie’s optimism, unextinguished even in the face of his wife’s lacerating put-downs, is what connects him to starry-eyed Dilly, fresh from the sales floor of Frederick’s of Hollywood. She flaunts her sexuality rather too insistently; it’s her openness and exuberance that draw Freddie, starved as he is for a kind word. He sees her as another good-natured dreamer, though Dilly’s hopes are somewhat more specific than his, and pinned to her relationship with Duncan. But when he announces his plans for her, Duncan reveals a callousness that shatters expectations and alignments.
The abbreviated second act ends with an anticlimactic whimper, the intended poignancy and horror lost in the execution. Menkes demonstrates a pleasing way with words, his concise dialogue often shorthand for powerful insights about ambition, success and the human heart. A stronger cast might have brought more dynamism and nuance to his piquant, if thinly developed, premise. But lackluster direction by Dillon and Manu Tupou saps the material’s potential sparks, with pacing sometimes bordering on the lethargic.
In this group of actors (the double-cast production alternates troupes), the men fare better than the women. Manthey has yet to develop a sure command of the stage, while Crowley seldom gets beyond Fiona’s hard surface. Dillon’s perf is uneven, but at its best he strikes the right note of blase skepticism and offhand cruelty, his Duncan eyeing the world from behind the armor of financial achievement.
The strongest work by far belongs to Sherer. With his fretful, wide-eyed gaze and hounded yet hopeful air, his Freddie is the heart of the story, tender, pathetic and trying to transcend disillusion as the storm rages around him.