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Stage review

Play-within-a-play goes for laughs

From left: Lizbeth MacKay, Katie Finneran, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Martin, and John Rubinstein in “The Torch-Bearers’’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival. From left: Lizbeth MacKay, Katie Finneran, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Martin, and John Rubinstein in “The Torch-Bearers’’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival. (T. Charles Erickson)
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2009

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WILLIAMSTOWN - Bad theater never fails, if it’s done well. This has been true at least since the mechanicals’ skit in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’ The point was proven again by Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off’’ and Christopher Guest’s 1996 film “Waiting for Guffman.’’

George Kelly’s 1922 light comedy “The Torch-Bearers,’’ a Broadway hit in its day that is now being revived at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is in this delicious line of plays and films that take as their premise the notion that people are never so much themselves as when they are acting, or trying to.

“The Torch-Bearers’’ was written at the peak of the Little Theater movement, when middle-class ladies suddenly began forming amateur companies and staging plays, revealing “what gems of talent the unfathomed caves of matrimony bear.’’

Such purple phrases come readily from the mouth of Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli (Katherine McGrath), the high-minded impresario who has gathered a circle of acolytes all dedicated to serving Art, the function of which is, as she says, “to be pretty.’’ Their latest project is “One of Those Things,’’ a melodrama vaguely (and the vagueness is one of Kelly’s more brilliant strokes) on the subject of marital infidelity.

The would-be Barrymores and Duses are Florence McCrickett (Katie Finneran), a flapper who plays a wronged wife but whose fidgeting legs tell you she wants to be on the dance floor; Huxley Hossefrosse (Edward Herrmann), an over-the-hill leading man who is one sustained grand entrance, and in need of a prompter; and Nelly Fell (Andrea Martin), the prompter, who minds other people’s business but can’t feed them their lines. Filling out the company, there’s the maladroit prop master, Mr. Spindler (Yusef Bulos); the neurasthenic lad Teddy (James Waterston); the mincing Ralph Twitter (Philip Goodwin); and an Irish maid (Lizbeth MacKay).

Let’s not forget our foreground characters. As the play begins, Frederick Ritter (John Rubinstein) has returned from a business trip to find his wife, Paula (Becky Ann Baker), about to host the cast for a touch-up rehearsal. Paula, pudgy and idle, has had a triumph (we’re told) as a last-minute substitute in the first performance and is imagining an acting career. In a brilliantly written long scene, the players arrive, one by one, and their charms and idiosyncrasies collide, occasionally bringing the rehearsal to a halt.

Director Dylan Baker, who did “The Torch-Bearers’’ off-Broadway in 2000 with Marian Seldes as Mrs. Pampinelli, has again arranged the original three acts into two, so the curtain goes up on the play-within-the-play at the end of the first act. In Act II, we see the play itself unfold - or more accurately, collapse - from backstage, with the stage action cleverly projected as shadows against the flats. (This scene was originally presented as a vaudeville act, which explains its mechanical humor.)

In the end, back in the Ritters’ living room, Paula reconsiders her foolishness and makes peace with her husband. The playwright’s sympathies have played around everyone, but in the end, they side with Paula’s husband and conventional mores.

Baker and his cast of veteran actors have decided that the best way to breathe life into this charming if narrow period piece is to perform it simply, straightforwardly, and fast, as if this were the original production. McKay plays Mrs. Pampinelli with a delicate earnestness that makes her almost touching. There are no caricatures, only endearing types. The rehearsal scene is a masterpiece of comic timing, blocking (some stage business is added), and layering of voices. David Korins’s sets dissolve brilliantly from handsome drawing room to stage set, and back again.

There are so many fine turns, indeed, that, whatever the play’s moral, you are likely to leave the theater on Mrs. Pampinelli’s side. It’s better to serve the theater badly than not at all.

THE TORCH-BEARERS Play by George Kelly

Directed by: Dylan Baker. Set, David Korins. Costumes, Ilona Somogyi. Lights, Rui Rita. Sound, Alex Neumann.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through Aug. 9. Tickets: $25-$50. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org

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