The backstage drama almost constitutes its own subgenre by now, with such stalwarts as “Noises Off” and “A Chorus Line” continually onstage somewhere, and so it’s a surprise that Alan Ayckbourn’s take on the subject, “A Chorus of Disapproval,” has taken 22 years to receive a premiere in Los Angeles. Perhaps it was considered too British, with its rugby terminology and song sung entirely in Welsh, but the sparklingly entertaining and accessible production at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble clearly demonstrates that “Disapproval” is another Ayckbourn classic.
Director Barry Philips deftly orchestrates a cantata of controlled comedic chaos, as his first-class cast gleefully depicts the machinations and mania inherent in putting on a show.
When Guy Jones (Roy Abramsohn) tries out for a part in a community theater production of “The Beggar’s Opera,” he’s expecting to get a small part and start out slowly. And indeed, the gregarious Welsh director Dafydd Llewellyn (Matthew Elkins) initially assigns him a tiny, one-line role. As rehearsals proceed, however, Guy becomes involved in not one but two affairs — one with the sexually voracious Fay (Kimberly Patterson) and another with Dafydd’s unhappy wife, Hannah (Caitlin Shannon); unexpectedly becomes the linchpin for a shady real estate deal involving several cast members; and is promoted, role by role, in the play, eventually to the lead.
Elkins is a glorious bundle of energy as Dafydd, at turns commanding, amusingly “theatrical,” vituperously bitchy and, finally, touchingly vulnerable. It’s a pitch-perfect perf, from his accent to the way his airily confident facade gives way to anger and despair. Finally, he has a gorgeous singing voice, and his delivery of the Welsh song mentioned earlier is a show-stopper.
Abramsohn is quite adept at showing how quickly a seemingly decent man can fall from grace. Although he generally plays the straight man to a series of wacky confreres, he imbues his role with subtle notes, from initial befuddlement to later guilt.
Jaxon Duff Gwillim brings a vulpine vigor to the character of Fay’s unsavory husband, Ian, and David Manis is spot-on hilarious as the stolid yet odd Jarvis. Tracie Lockwood is a treat as the exasperated stage manager Bridget, and Erin Holt is the picture of pretty petulance as Bridget’s nemesis, Linda.
Patterson is alternately sexy and chilling as the manipulative Fay, and her hysterics over Guy’s guest at her party are contagious. Shannon’s portrayal of an unfaithful wife turned into a jealous wreck is, along with Dafydd’s plight, the dramatic centerpiece of the show, and she displays a depth of feeling — a whirlwind of anger and passion — that exposes the tragedy underlying the comedy.
With the exception of Elkins’ solo number, the musical pieces are forgettable but thankfully short. Charles Erven’s set is unshowy yet effective, dividing the stage into thirds to represent multiple locations. Jennifer Koster’s costumes do a nice job of showing the different social strata of the characters, from tacky leopard-skin coats to slinky leather jackets, from dowdy matron clothes to tweedy pseudo-elegance.