Theater Review: ‘The Roundabout’: Revived British Parlor-Comedy Is Simply Outdated
History has proven communism to be categorically the most deadly form of government ever; it has collectively killed approximately 150 million humans to date.
So it can safely be said that breezy debates about the virtues of communism versus capitalism, in a high-twit-factor, three-act, moldy British drawing-room comedy—already so second-rate in its inception that it’s only being revived now, after its abandonment in 1932—is hardly the place to do the topic justice.
The only thing to report on Brits on Broadway’s production here is the laugh meter of this recently discovered comedy by J.B. Priestley (of “An Inspector Calls” fame), which runs through May 28 at 59E59 Theaters. Does it amuse? Will it leave you in stitches? Is it worthwhile?
Lords and Ladies
The year is 1931, and the effete but dysfunctional Kettlewells are having an unexpected reunion. To the manor-born elite, the Eton-educated, 70-something Lord Richard Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe) is falling on hard times—bad investments and such. The Great Depression is setting in.
And he’s got more miseries than St. Anthony, being visited, as he is, by a string of unwelcome guests on one fine, twitty British day.
First up is his old friend Churton “Chuffy” Saunders (Hugh Sachs), an avowed Edwardian who wistfully champions an eternal spat-wearing Great Britain. Chuffy enters the parlor overly late, having slept in because, after much experience, he anticipates that lords of manors like to “show guests things,” like fields, early in the morning. Speaking of fields, this moment is reminiscent of John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers” saying, “Ah, yes—the wheat! Love the wheat!” Rawther amusing.
Sachs has a delicious, Nathan Lane-ian, catty, read-out type delivery, and he pretty much steals the entire show with it.
Next up is Lord Kettlewell’s long-lost daughter Pamela (Emily Laing), recently returned from the U.S.S.R. and doing a sort of costume rip-off of Viola in “Twelfth Night,” appearing boyish and strident in a Bolsh-y, beret-and-knickers, comrade get-up—only to revert to dainty, feminine British parlor dress later on, accompanied by coquettish-vicious feminine wiles.
Now, 1930s Great Britain was still highly class-oriented, and, cloaked under the depressing effects of the Depression, the red specter of communism was starting to look inviting to the younger generations. So Pamela’s become a zealous communist, and she’s brought along with her a cartoon-level annoying Bolshevik, Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley), an arrogant, reedy twit of fathomless Marxist-screed sanctimoniousness.
Arriving late to the party is the mistress that the largely ineffectual and endlessly dithering Lord Kettlewell is attempting break up with, Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks). Also arriving late is his ex-wife, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman).
All of the guests are announced by the butler in the manner of Gandalf announcing the unwelcome dwarves to Beorn, the bear-man in “The Hobbit,” which naturally functions as a running gag, getting (slightly) funnier with each repetition.
Will Lord Kettlewell warm to his estranged, feisty daughter and allow her to stay? Will he reunite with either of his former flames? Will the lowly butler come out of nowhere with some of the best refutations of communist rhetoric, above and beyond his highly educated master? Will the butler also win big at horses and quit his job? Will the slap-worthy Comrade Staggles reveal himself ultimately as a lust-ridden, hypocritical, put-his-feet-up-and-sip-fine-brandy hedonist? Will little miss Bolsh-y coquette find the man of her dreams? Will you care about any of it?
Lots of Talent, Meh Play
“The Roundabout” has quite a talented cast. The problem is that it’s just not terribly funny or impactful. It’s quite a bland offering. These sorts of plays and the attitudes therein don’t age well. You wonder whom, if anyone, they’re affecting; one has the urge to look over one’s shoulder to see whom it’s impacting. In my case, I didn’t have to.
The clearly well-to-do, eldery lady directly behind me opened one crinkly lozenge after another (after being told expressly not to by theater personnel). Post-intermission, she swirled her tinkly ice-cubes as she “ooh’d,” “aah’d,” giggled, snickered, and guffawed, and during intermission, she stood, banging my head repeatedly with her purse. I know she was doing it on purpose; I counted 23 bangs.
I would have enjoyed her performance more than what was happening onstage, if I hadn’t simultaneously been wishing for a giant flyswatter.
Priestley does get credit for presenting two communists types: the holier-than-thou Tartuffe-like scoundrel and the youthful idealist who swallows socialist rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. Unfortunately, since the playwright’s social commentary extends to the lord and ladies as well, his apt criticism of the far left is so undercut as to be insipid.
As mentioned, this particular genre of play doesn’t age well, but if you’re a huge fan of, say, “The Importance of Being Ernest” and, like Chuffy, pine for spatterdashes and top hats, you’ll enjoy “The Roundabout” immensely.
59 E. 59th St., Second Floor
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59e59.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: May 28