By James V. Ruocco
In "Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense," the wildly dashing and charismatic Bertie Wooster decides to use the intimate, inviting environs of Hartford Stage to perform his one-man show about his recent comic misadventures as Totleigh Towers.
But, sadly, there are hiccups, lots of them.
The show, of course, is not ready. Nothing has gone to plan. Nothing has been rehearsed. And to his horror, there's a full house of theatergoers seated in the darkness, anxiously awaiting to be entertained.
Bloody hell, what's a man to to do?
This being the brainchild of P.G. Wodehouse (as envisioned for the stage by the Goodale Brothers), it's an easy fix. With the help of his trusty valet Jeeves and his equally dependable butler Seppings (each playing a variety of roles), Wooster saves Hartford Stage from ruin (no refunds at the box office for an unperformed play, that is) and puts on the show of a lifetime. And what a show, it is.
A savvy, observant rip-tickler.
A masterpiece of astonishing intricacy.
Perfectly timed to the split second.
"Perfect Nonsense" delivers, delivers and delivers.
This being an American production....not an Englishman is sight except for the director...the two-act comedy thrusts farcical comedy into high gear, ingeniously reproducing the accents, manners, posturing and expressions of the Edwardian upper class and their servants, their simultaneously wild and woolly shenanigans, their droll, mannered line delivery and lastly, the British conceit of farce in the style and send up from whence it came.
Staging "Perfect Nonsense," director Sean Foley goes the specialized route of London's Mischief Theatre, the award-winning British comedy troupe responsible for "The Play That Goes Wrong," "The Comedy About a Bank Robbery," "Lights! Camera! Improvise!" and "Peter Pan Goes Wrong."
And that is meant as the highest complement to the British-born Foley whose West End credits include "Pinter's People," "A Mad World, My Masters," "The Ladykillers," "Ben-Hur," "What the Butler Saw" and "Perfect Nonsense" at the Duke of York's Theatre starring Matthew MacFadyen, Stephan Mangan and Mark Hadfield.
For anyone who has seen "Perfect Nonsense" before, "The Play That Goes Wrong" or "Noises Off," farce, for example, is not that easy to pull off - not by a long shot. It requires the right cast, the right director and the right comic mindset for its non-stop flights of sheer, unadulterated lunacy. One wrong move. One wrong cue. One wrong mistimed line of dialogue and it's over, just like that.
At Hartford Stage, Foley is completely in his element. It's obvious just seconds into "Perfect Nonsense." It's obvious ten minutes into "Perfect Nonsense." It's obvious at the end of Act I. It's obvious at the start of Act II. It's obvious right through to the end of Act II. This is grand, uproarious farce - British style - that works hard (very hard) to entertain, to cajole, to delight, to stick it to you, to knock you on your bloomin' ass and get you to laugh out loud over and over and over. Foley succeeds swimmingly.
As director, Foley mounts a farce in the fine tradition of West End slapstick where lines are purposely dropped, actors break character, costumes don't cooperate, props are misused, plot lines shudder into chaos, technical malfunctions ensue, the fourth wall between actor and audience is abandoned and on-the-spot improvisation is sometimes necessary.
What makes "Perfect Nonsense" so much fun is that its dizzying dash is sustained throughout as is its slaphappy, varying degrees of craziness and personal disasters, its banana peel embarrassment, its mounting mayhem, its no-fault nonsense and its wickedly timed schadenfreude. No matter where you look or what ensues, Foley never once lets anyone see the wheels turning, the actor's pausing to reflect their next move or the well-oiled staging maneuvers and mechanics he creates showing any signs of wear and tear from performance to performance. And therein, lies the show's strength and comic lifeline.
Donning the tailcoats of everyone's favorite English gentleman, Chandler Williams is classy, droll, charming, amusing and poised perfectly. He's also marvelously in sync with Wodehouse's conceit for the character of Bertie Wooster, which he gets exactly right at every twist, corner, stop-and-go turn that "Perfect Nonsense" throws at him. He's American, yes, but he's so English in every way imaginable, one wonders if maybe was was an Englishman in another lifetime, No matter, he brilliantly manages the show's physical and farcical mechanics, its lofty tricks and double takes, its lucrative, but corny jokes, its class oriented rituals and its unflappable actor/audience strategies and flourishes.
As Jeeves and Seppings, Arnie Burton and Eddie Korbich are asked to play several different roles, both male and female, which they do so most agreeably. As "Perfect Nonsense" evolves, they manage their share of the show's biggest laughs, switching costumes swiftly and imaginatively (one in fact, gets to argue with himself from left two right playing two different characters), diving headfirst into the play's private jokes, tomfoolery and featured craziness, its tangled disasters and its Wodehouse-flavored dialogue. They do it ever so engagingly. And get this, they too are American, not British.
With "Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense," Hartford Stage serves up a very saucy, tasty and dishy farce, chock full of well-orchestrated zest, irony, slapstick, double entendres, visual gags and pratfalls. The laughs are big and loud. The direction is individually expressive. The performances - all three- merge into complete triumph. And the show itself is one to savor from top to bottom and in between with its high farce relish dictated from the splendid, enjoyable P.G. Wodehouse comic catalog.
P.S: Wait till you meet the show's 8' 6" character, Roderick Spode, the leader of London's fictional fascist group "The Black Spots." You'll go absolutely bonkers watching him try to make entrances and exits through the set's doorways. There's also some cheeky costume tricks by designer Alice Powers that heighten the merriment.
"Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense" is being performed at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through April 20.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.