Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE PLAY’S THE THING (Storm Theatre Company)

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by Paul Birchall on October 18, 2013

in Theater-New York


The Storm Theater presents the first offering of its Ferenc Molnár festival with this gem, adapted by P.G. Wodehouse from Molnár’s original The Play at the Castle.  Molnár was a Hungarian playwright of the Golden Age of Fluffy Theater, and in his latter years he was a grand screenwriter in New York, penning films for Grace Kelly and Margaret Sullivan.  However, his 1926 comedy has become a bit of a staple in regional theater, thanks to Wodehouse’s beautifully sparkly adaptation.  And what a glittery, cheerful piece it is, too, all good mood and cheerful wit, with delicious dialogue and broad, engaging characters to make you beam in your seat.

It might be that pure escapism is not especially in fashion at the moment – but it’s hard not to be beguiled by a play whose intentions of pleasing are so earnest and sincere, and which is so successful at it.  This play is probably even better known nowadays for having been adapted by Tom Stoppard for the West End and Alexis Kelley and Brian Linden in the Storm Theatre production of “The Play’s The Thing” by Ferenc Molnar adapted by P.G. WodehouseBroadway hit Rough Crossing, but the Wodehouse translation of the work is nothing to sniff at – and, in my humble opinion, is more downright engaging, as few writers possess Wodehouse’s abilities to skewer a certain type of upper class personality.

Brilliant playwright Sandor Turai (Joe Danbusky) and his collaborator Mansky (Andy Allis) accompany idealistic young composer Albert (Jeff Kline) to a castle on the Italian Riviera for a weekend with Albert’s lovely fiancée, soprano Ilona (Alexis Kelley).  However, the guests arrive early – and Turai, Mansky, and Albert accidentally overhear what appears to be Ilona canoodling lustfully with her former boyfriend Almady (Brian Linden).  Albert storms out, and Mansky and Turai both see the end of their careers looming, as the songs Albert has written for Ilona are central to their next play’s success.

However, fortunately, the genius Turai whips up a plan to save the day that is very contrived, very desperate, and so very funny: It involves forcing Ilona and Almady to appear in a fake play that just happens to contain the soupy and idiotic sweet nothings they were muttering to each other, and which just might convince Albert that he didn’t hear what he thought he heard.

In director Peter Dobbins’ beguiling production, the show falls into breezy tropes of romantic operetta, recalling a Preston Sturges-esque mood – which is quite a natural fit, as Molnár provided scripts for a number of Sturges’ movies.  It feels like the entire show is a dramatized waltz – and sometimes it is, such as during the scene changes, including a moment in which the play’s hilarious, somewhat disturbingly efficient butler Dvornichev (Spencer Aste) serves a gigantic breakfast with balletic skill.  Here, daffiness is the order of the day, from the incredibly silly “play-within-a-play” to sequences of merry feasting and the lovely, assured dialogue, which is almost as bubbly as the tinkling glasses of champagne.

Dobbins whips up a totally artificial but enchanting world, where nothing is more important than whether a young man will solve the problems of his love life and finish an operetta.  And that’s not an easy environment to create, considering the theater is located in a kind of a dungeon somewhere beneath the Church of Notre Dame near Columbia.

Performances are as gleefully fluffy as the material.  As Turai, Danbusky assays the perfect mix of cunning, brilliance, and pomposity.  His line readings, so dry you almost have to squint to make out the fierce underlashings of ironic wit, are devastatingly funny.  He’s matched by the Paul Lynde-like neurotic quiverings of Alexis Kelley and Jeff Kline in the Storm Theatre production of “The Play’s The Thing” by Ferenc Molnar adapted by P.G. WodehouseAllis’s delightfully tightly wound Mansky.  The charm of the pair’s relationship appears to be that the two have mutual contempt for each other’s abilities – but they somehow need each other to complete their work together.

Kelley’s beautifully seductive Ilona seems the charming embodiment of gracious beauty and feminine elegance, but every so often (when her character is up against the wall and fighting for her reputation), the sappiness drops momentarily to reveal the steely cunning of a ferocious street fighter who is only masquerading as a grande dame.  As the sleazy lothario, Linden is a scene stealer, particularly when his prissy snobbishness is punctured and he’s subsequently humiliated beyond all range of reason.

Essentially, this is a play about the lies and artificiality that provides the context for the world of theater.  There’s almost no moment in the work when the characters speak truth to each other – the brilliant scene in which Turai confronts Ilona and Armady about their wickedness and proposes how he’ll save them is a great, hilarious exception.  And, yet, who needs truth when the deceptions are as pretty as this lush and sparkling comedy?

photos by Michael Abrams

The Play’s The Thing
Storm Theatre Company
Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame
Morningside Drive between 114th and 115th Street
scheduled to end on October 26, 2013
for tickets, call 212 868-4444 or visit

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