As part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s 23rd Season entitled “Progress,” it has unearthed a 1920 theater comedy called Rollo’s Wild Oat by Clare Beecher Kummer. Although the play is at times quaint and amusing, the problem with the revival is the direction. Michael Hardart, who piloted Metropolitan Playhouse’s successful productions of Within the Law, A Man’s World, The Great Divide and Under the Gaslight, has staged this play as a drawing room comedy. However, as the plot will demonstrate the play is a farce and should be staged as such. While the play remains amusing, a great many of the jokes do not land as they ought to while some of the acting is much too genteel for this sort of play.
Though forgotten today, Kummer, who was a grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a cousin by marriage of William Gillette, had 29 Broadway productions to her credit including comedies and librettos of operettas and musicals. Her best known plays today are the 1916 Good Gracious Annabelle, the 1917 A Successful Calamity and the 1933 Her Master’s Voice, all of whose Broadway productions featured later Hollywood star Roland Young who was married to her daughter, and all of which were made into Hollywood films. These plays contain interesting premises that lead to madcap complications and ultimately happy endings.
Like George Kelly’s more famous play, The Torchbearers, Kummer’s Rollo’s Wild Oat satirizes theater amateurs who think they can compete with professional actors. Rollo Webster has been given a small fortune by his grandfather Horatio, the air brakes king, to start a business. However, the business Rollo wants to be in is to produce Hamlet with himself as the star. Of course, as Rollo has no professional credits as an actor, this effort is doomed from the start but he plans to go on until the end. He locates a business manager Abie Stein who helps him find a cast of Shakespearean actors as well as a beautiful new actress Goldie MacDuff from musical revues to play Ophelia. Goldie knows she is out of her depth but the now smitten Rollo won’t hear of her quitting.
The only problem is that Rollo has to keep his plan a secret from his grandfather, hire his own sister Lydia to keep her quiet, and hope that their Aunt Lane doesn’t spill the beans to their grandfather. While Hardart’s production has the undeniable polish and gracefulness of a drawing room comedy, the play has too many scenes of people being hidden in the next room and unbelievable coincidences to be other than a farce. The refined delivery kills many of the jokes which ought to be played more broadly. Weakest of all is Kevin Sebastian as a rather bland, mild Rollo who seems to have been directed or decided to play him as though he were Oscar Wilde’s Jack Worthing when in fact he is closer to Wilde’s Algy Moncrieff in his outrageousness. Rollo’s megalomania needs to be played for all it is worth.
Some of the cast have found the right style, while others are too heavy or too light. Erica Knight makes a lovely Goldie who knows she has no business playing Shakespeare but has fallen in love with Rollo nevertheless. Alexis Hyatt is vivacious and animated as Rollo’s sister Lydia who is trying to break out of the stultifying atmosphere of her grandfather’s restrictions. As the bemused Aunt Lane, Wendy Merritt’s artificial and brittle performance would be fine if this were a drawing room comedy, but this is farce.
Mac Brydon as manager Abie Stein brings a bit of Damon Runyan to the mix with his over-the-top New York accent while Gary Lizardo, as the actor chosen to play Polonius, also makes his character Runyanesque. David Licht is fine as Thomas Skitterling, cast as a pompous Claudius, as well as the crotchety, bad-tempered Uncle Horatio. Page Clements grande dames it in two roles as the mature Gertrude of a certain age who really wants to continue to play Ophelia and Uncle Horatio’s dour servant Bella, but both performances are too heavy-handed for the material. Joe Joyce is amusing as Rollo’s grandiose butler who has a few secrets of his own.
Designer Sidney Fortner has created a veritable fashion parade of costumes from stylish 1920’s dresses of the ladies to the Elizabethan garb for Hamlet to the elaborate three-piece outfits for the well-dressed men about town. The witty settings by Alex Roe cleverly reuse various set pieces for its four locations. Christopher Weston’s lighting always focuses attention on the heart of the action.
Clare Beecher Kummer’s Rollo’s Wild Oat in its satire of amateurs invading the theater might be a lost treasure of the American theater, but Michael Hardart’s production makes some surprising choices and does not give the play its most convincing shot.
Rollo’s Wild Oat (through December 20, 2014)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission