A loveable mutt of a play

Riverfront Theatre puts on a fun but sometimes trying comedy

Members of the cast of <i>Inspecting Carol</i> take some last minute direction before the opening performance.

Members of the cast of Inspecting Carol take some last minute direction before the opening performance.

Photo by David Robert

Rated 3.0

Prior to this assignment, I knew the Cal-Neva only as the home of the $3 dinner and an oddly appealing margarine product I call “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Salt!” Could this place actually have a theater?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one wondering that. Minutes before the opening curtain, my husband and I were dashing about the casino, following the dead-end directions of bewildered Cal-Neva employees. ("We have a theater here?” “See that service entrance, by the big truck?")

When we finally found the theater (across the street from the main casino, in the “Nevadan” building), it was apparent this was not a typical casino show. It was 7:32, and the crew patiently waited as we bought tickets. We were reassured that the show wouldn’t start without us.

A couple dozen people were nestled in the tiny theater, and we were warned to avoid a section of seats that had been co-opted as part of the set. The director stepped out to welcome us and to apologize for opening-night snafus. It was like being at a friend’s house to watch movies.

Inspecting Carol follows the misadventures of a struggling theater troupe rehearsing their annual production of A Christmas Carol. After a decade of performing the show with the same costumes, props and cast, the actors are bored and frustrated. Meanwhile, director and founder Zorah Bloch (Kathy Welch) learns that the company is flat broke and in danger of losing its government grant due to “significant artistic deficit.” The company’s last chance requires making a good impression on the National Endowment for the Arts inspector who is scheduled to visit that week.

The tired, hackneyed production of A Christmas Carol is a great source of laughs. The weathered cardboard turkey, the teenaged Tiny Tim, and the malodorous costumes all add up to a Christmas Carol that would be wretched in real life, but is hilarious when mocked onstage. The cast’s only fresh face is Walter Lee Runningwolf (Dirk Miller), the token minority character whom Zorah added to replace her dead husband and appease the NEA. In a case of life imitating art, Miller assumed his role mere days before the show opened, a last-minute replacement for another actor. I was surprised to learn this, because Miller’s performance was exceptionally natural.

The cast of the fictional play resembles a dysfunctional family, with plenty of odd neuroses and petty bickering. The middle third of the play exploits this dynamic with limited success. I found some characters so annoying they simply couldn’t make me laugh. I also felt more pity than amusement at the character of Wayne Wellacre (Lloyd Steinman), an aspiring actor with so little talent that the others assume he must be the NEA inspector and suck up to him accordingly.

Holiday cheer and goodwill toward men are regained in the second act, when the fictional cast presents their dress rehearsal of A Christmas Carol. Actors panic, things fall down, leftist agendas pop into Dickens’ dialogue, and Tiny Tim is spontaneously recast as a Faulknerian idiot man-child.

Although the jokes are hit-and-miss, Inspecting Carol is a lovable mutt of a play, the kind of production you root for even when it isn’t winning. You’ll leave the theater with a smile on your face and a good feeling inside—which is more than you can expect from the $3 dinner.