“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” It’s ironic that the actor most commonly credited with that deathbed aphorism is Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa Claus in Miracle on 42nd Street. I doubt that being alone makes dying any easier, but playing comedy alone definitely makes that harder.
Such was the plight of the game cast of Shadow Lawn Stage’s Scapino last Thursday night at the Lauren K Woods Theatre at Monmouth University, where the fourteen actors, an even mix of Actors Equity pros and Monmouth students, outnumbered the audience nearly two-to-one.
A common reaction to a near-empty house is a tendency to speak too fast and too loud, a trap into which several Scapino actors tumbled. That said, the rarely-produced comedy fits comfortably on an academic campus (producer/professor John J. Burke picks ‘em well), and the production hangs together.
The 1967 play, by British director Frank Dunlop and actor Jim Dale, for whom it was written, is an adaptation of a 300-year earlier Moliere comedy. In defiance of their controlling fathers, two young men, Ottavio and Leandro, fall in love with two women, Giacinta and Zerbinetta. Ottavio and Giacinta marry, but Leandro needs to raise money to ransom Zerbinetta from gypsies who had stolen her from her parents years before.
Leandro turns to his servant Scapino for help, wherein lies the theme of the play. Scapino dupes the dads out of the ransom cash, but not before his multiple maneuvers create comic mayhem. Of course it all works out in the end, with fathers-and-sons reconciled, lovers united, and Scapino none the worse for wear.
Among the pros in the cast, Gregory Ryan and Bradley Mott fare very well as the puffed-up fathers, and Paula Jon De Rose brings an aura of charm and innocence to instant-bride Giacante. Several others are less effective, lapsing into shrill overacting. (Q: Is overacting even possible in such wild and crazy goings-on? A: Unfortunately, yes; controlled chaos is a skill unto itself.)
The title role is problematic. Besides the extraordinary actor-mimic Jim Dale, one can picture a young Robin Williams or Sid Caesar as Scapino. Partly due perhaps to the meager audience, Richard Rella, Jr. rushes through most of the play, especially the delicious scene where Scapino conjures up a host of characters, including a pirate and his parrot. Rella’s haste there lays waste to any distinct differences among Scapino’s creations. Director Maurice J. Moran, while adept at traffic management, might have stressed the difference between quick (good) and fast (not so).
The cheery set-of-many-entrances (including up, down and around the auditorium) is the accomplishment of designers Fernandino DelGuercio and Michael Anthony Donato. Light in mood and color (bright greens and oranges predominate), the walls and balcony are sturdy enough to withstand some farcical abuse. One does question the necessity of canals and an unfortunately rickety rowboat, but maybe, just this once, more is more.
In the student cast, Paul Castro, Jr. pops in and out effectively as another servant, and Alex Appolonia sparkles as a waitress whose duties include making the cell phone announcement and doing calisthenics until, alas, she’s shooed off the stage.
“Scapino” continues through July 10 at the Woods Theatre at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ. Performances Wed-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 7. Reservations ($35; seniors $30; students $15): 732-263-6889