Friday, May 5, 2017

2 (2017-2018): Review: THE ROUNDABOUT (seen May 4, 2017)

"A Priestley Resurrection"

Four years ago, during its 2013 Brits Off-Broadway festival, 59E59 Theaters imported a splendid UK revival of Cornelius, a forgotten J.B. Priestley play from 1935. For its current round of British imports, this notable Off-Broadway venue is presenting yet another barely known Priestley play, The Roundabout, not heard hide nor hair of since its 1932 staging at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre until revived last year in this production by London’s Cahoots Theatre Company.
Steven Blakeley, Emily Laing. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
While a lesser play than Cornelius, The Roundabout, smoothly staged by Hugh Ross, who discovered it among his father’s books, offers enough nutrition for a band of first-rate thespians to feast on to make its resurrection edible. However, it’s still second-rate Priestley, far too long and chatty, at two hours and 15 minutes, for its wafer-thin, drawing room/romantic comedy plot, leavened by political satire. Substitute a theatrical background for a class-oriented political one, and The Roundabout would not be that entirely different in tone and style from Noël Coward’s much better (but also slimly plotted) Present Laughter, currently in revival on Broadway.
Hugh Sachs, Emily Laing. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As in Coward’s slightly more farcical play, we’re in the stereotypical company of (mostly) witty, educated, well-dressed, articulate, cocktail-drinking (but, as is becoming standard in similar revivals, nonsmoking) people of means. As such plays go, Priestley’s familiar folks congregate during a weekend at a tasteful country house, this one owned by ascot-wearing Etonian Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe, always dignified no matter how flummoxed).
Carol Starks, Derek Hutchinson, Annie Jackson, Richenda Carey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s 1931 and Lord Kettlewell’s Depression-era finances suggest he may not be able to continue owning the place much longer. This makes the unexpected visit of his pretty, outspoken daughter, Pamela (Emily Laing), the progeny of his relationship with his long-estranged wife, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman, beautifully understated), that much more bothersome. Not having seen Pamela in years, he not only expresses little interest in fatherhood, he’s not even sure she’s actually his daughter.
Hugh Sachs, Lisa Bowerman, Emily Laing, Charlie Field. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The charmingly manipulative, mischievous Pamela—vividly portrayed by the very promising Laing—looking like a scruffy boy, has just returned with her equally unkempt fellow communist, Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley, comically radical), from three months in Russia. This provides opportunities to make fun of these callow reds’ antibourgeois blather; it also allows a few of their more telling thoughts to intrude, regardless of the naiveté with which they’re expressed. (Priestley himself leaned heavily toward the left.) And when Pamela opts to change from her crude clothing to elegant loveliness (Polly Sullivan did the attractive costumes and set), something like an Eliza Doolittle makeover, it’s nice to look at but not what Comrade Stalin would have approved.
Steven Blakeley, Annie Jackson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Politics, however, is merely the momentarily tasty but inconclusive frosting on a cake of romantic complications involving Pamela, an upright young man named Farrington Gurney (Charley Field, stiff upper lip and all that) and a handsome architect, Alec Grenside (Ed Pinker), which concludes with a contrived bit of playwriting tomfoolery. There are, as well, additional developments concerning Lord Kettlewell, Lady Kettlewell, and Lord Kettlewell’s mistress, Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks, snootily smarmy), who Pamela sharply puts in her place.
Emily Laing, Charlie Field, Carol Starks, Richenda Carey, Brian Protheroe, Hugh Sachs. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Looking on and offering their own takes are the lord’s faithful, raisonneur friend, Churton “Chuffy” Saunders (Hugh Sachs, perfectly on target), a fount of wisecracking wisdom; a crafty dowager named Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey, richly amusing); a deferential butler called Parsons (Derek Hutchinson) with a stake in the sweepstakes; and a young servant, Alice (Annie Jacksons), who becomes a target of the crudely amorous Comrade Staggles.
Emily Laing, Lisa Bowerman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
There’s some enjoyment to be derived from Priestley’s then timely and sometimes still pertinent observations on social and economic matters, but the relatively few laughs are mostly of the polite, muffled kind. Like Present Laughter, the first act tends to drag as we get to meet the characters and listen to the exposition, with no real stakes established to keep us in suspense during the intermission. Act Two is of more dramatic consequence, of course, but Coward does it better.
Emily Laing, Ed Pinker, Steven Blakeley. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Not to be roundabout about it but the resurrection of Priestley’s comedy is mainly to be recommended for its acting—especially that of Laing in the role played in London by Bessie Carter, daughter of Imelda Staunton and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter. Anything less would consign The Roundabout to another 85 years on the bookshelf.
Steven Blakeley. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through May 28