A good farce is hard to find these days, but that’s exactly what playwright/director Matt Letscher delivers with his wickedly funny and slickly staged “Sea of Fools” that had its world premiere last weekend at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Based on characters created by the author and several veteran PRTC actors who were looking for ways to amuse themselves while filming the 2002 movie “Super Sucker,” “Sea of Fools” takes us back to the commie-hunting 1950s where we meet a group of washed-up never-beens stuck in their own shallow, glittery corner of Hollywood. Major stars in their own minds – but ignored and totally forgotten by the world around them – this oddball troupe of time-stuck actors has reunited at the wake of director Warren Washington, whose unexpected death by cutlery has left them rudderless. (The klutz was also a closet queen with a passion for Greco-Roman wrestling, we discover, thanks to his longtime “writing partner,” Philip Skyline, played with persnickety precision by John Seibert.)
The mourners’ are thrown into turmoil when they learn that the hot-to-trot widow, Lee Newberry (Sandra Birch), has invited noted filmmaker Elia Kazan (Grant R. Krause) to stop by and read a heretofore secret script handed to her husband by F. Scott Fitzgerald many years earlier. Not knowing who the heck Kazan is – but sensing he could be their ticket back to the sliver screen if Newberry sells him the contents of the long-sealed envelope – the idiosyncratic stars of such celluloid gems as “The Blind Fisherman,” “Hay Ride Amigos,” “Whistle While You Quilt” and “Butlers on Parade” go to work to convince Kazan to use them in the film.
To say Kazan is stunned is an understatement.
Unbeknownst to the assembled guests, however, a junior FBI agent has infiltrated the wake. Disguised as Mary Wayburn (Suzi Regan), assistant to Redbook journalist Stella Morris (Janet Maylie), the two are surreptitiously there to cover the funeral. A promotion is pretty much assured, the agent believes, when Kazan’s unanticipated arrival adds yet one more known sympathizer to the mix of self-proclaimed commies. But Wayburn – like Kazan – is in for one heck of a surprise!
So, too, is the audience.
For not only is Letscher’s first major effort as a playwright and professional stage director well conceived and expertly executed – his characters are especially delightful, and his blocking is well thought out – rarely do so many fine actors have the chance to be so bad – on purpose yet – and do it so well, that the outrageous fun all eight actors have on stage should almost be deemed illegal.
It takes only seconds into the performance for Letscher to reveal its farcical nature. (Hastings, the butler – drolly played by Clyde Brown – delivers the “turn off all cell phones and pagers” speech, after which he offers the audience one last chance to leave the theater before the show begins. We’ve been forewarned, but no one does.) And before long, we’re laughing at Seibert’s pratfalls, Sanville’s horrible toupee and the gloriously exaggerated facial expressions and body movements of Birch.
Like every new play, however, “Sea of Fools” isn’t flawless. After a near perfect first act, the last half could use some trimming. (The reenactment of a scene from the movie “Admiral Hamlet,” although funny and with an appropriately hammy death scene by Sanville, runs a bit too long. And all the talk about Stanislavsky and “the method” – while familiar to other actors in the audience and important to the plot – is probably as meaningless to the public as it is to the clueless characters on stage. That, too, could be shortened.)
The set by Vincent Mountain is gorgeous and well-utilized. And all other technical aspects of the productions are fine, as well.
‘Sea of Fools’
Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wed.-Sun., through Sept. 1. Tickets: $25-$35. For information: 734-433-7673 or http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.