It's always a risk when a professional company such as the Rep dusts off an old chestnut such as "Inspecting Carol". I mean, it's kind of become a go to Christmas show for hundreds of regional theaters and might be a little dated. But I can understand why since it was created at the Rep back in 1991 by then Artistic Director Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre Resident Company. And while the remount this year definitely had some laughs, overall it felt clunky and filled with holes and didn't deliver the constant barrage of gut busters I was expecting.
Inspired by "The Inspector General" by Nikolai Gogol, the show ends up as kind of a combination of "Noises Off" and "Waiting for Guffman" as a struggling theater company attempts to put on their tried version of "A Christmas Carol" while trying to impress the man they mistakenly think is from the review board of the National Endowment for the Arts and the decider of their grant and their fate. And trying to accomplish this we have Larry (Ian Bell), the know it all actor who keeps trying to rewrite the show; Phil (Chris Ensweiler), the hypochondriac in love with the director; Dorothy and Sidney (Kimberly King and Michael Winters), the uber chipper couple; Walter (Reginald Andre Jackson), the one black man in the cast and the director's attempt at multiculturalism who can't remember his lines; and Luther (played on alternate nights by Hank Fialkow and Nathaniel Kelderman), the 12 year old who's just a little too big to still be playing Tiny Tim. And this crazy bunch is steered into the iceberg by the volatile director Zorah (Gretchen Krich), the anxious Managing Director Kevin (Burton Curtis) and the beleaguered Stage Manager MJ (Peggy Gannon). And if this crew wasn't enough, in comes Wayne (Stephen Hando), an aspiring actor whom Zorah mistakes for the man from the NEA and who ultimately takes the already shaky show into the realm of the ridiculous.
It sounds like a winner of a premise and it is. I do love me some backstage theater comedies (although at times I wonder if they have too many theatrical in jokes for non-theater people). The problem I kept running into with this one (and no, as often as it's produced I've never seen it before) was that it was overloaded with too many convenient contrivances that seemed to come out of nowhere and payoffs that were not fully established. Why is Walter stumbling about the stage and not saying anything? I thought it was that he'd hit his head and was hurt but was informed later in the play that he didn't know his lines. OK, missed that one. Why is MJ laughing hysterically at everything when previously she was completely professional and annoyed? Why does (spoiler alert here, although you can sense it coming) the entire set fall apart at the end when only one section of it seemed unsteady throughout rehearsals? And why all these comical tableaus in the theater during the show that seemed to take forever and break the action? The play itself just feels like a mish mash of self indulgent jokes that you might see on a bad sitcom.
Director Jerry Manning has assembled a fine cast for the show and they do what they can with a show that just doesn't flow well. Bell is hilarious as the actor who knows better than Charles Dickens on how to tell the story. Krich is a powerhouse as the leader of this doomed expedition and her vamping seduction scene was priceless. And Hando's oh so painful audition monologues were almost worth the price of admission. And that's just to name a few of the wonderful actors up there. But even they couldn't keep me from overlooking the obvious flaws of the play.
Maybe I was expecting too much from one of my favorite companies in town. Maybe I'd heard the name of the play so often that I assumed it had to be great. Maybe I was being a little over sensitive about a story of a theater company in financial trouble and threatened with closing and not finding the situation all that funny considering the recent troubles of the Rep's neighbors. Or maybe I was a little put off with the ladies behind me who insisted on repeating every funny line or commenting on every funny moment … loudly (you're not in your living room, ladies). Whatever the case, I was expecting more for my evening last night and came away disappointed. Although I should say much of the audience seemed to eat it up (including those ladies behind me). So maybe it was just me.