Reviewing Stage Fright is sort of like eating the devil’s dessert. This comedy-with-an-agenda is about a particularly sharp-tongued theater critic who is tied up in his chair—I won’t say by whom, because that would spoil the fun—and then confronted with his own barbed words, and some of the scars they’ve left.
It would be wrong to divulge any more of the plot—let’s just say that this mystery-tinged play has surprises in store. But the show puts any reviewer—and indeed, anyone who’s ever indulged in a bit of coffee-hour evaluation of a show you saw the night before—in a position where you find yourself recalling some of your own cutting remarks.
(I’ll ’fess up: I once described an awful production of Dracula as “utterly uncontaminated by artistic ambition,” and I’ve been even less kind to several Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.)
The critic in this play—F.F. Charnick, or “F” for short—becomes an onstage hostage, but playwright Charles Marowitz takes no prisoners. Marowitz roasts not only critics (for being vain, merciless, self-serving and vengeful) but also actors, directors, stage managers and even audiences. Marowitz also dwells on the notion that critics are pen-toting character assassins, while actors sometimes become assassins in the literal sense (actor John Wilkes Booth leapt dramatically onstage after shooting Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre). Let it be noted that Marowitz is a Southern California-based “theater gadfly” whose books include Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic and who’s feuded with reviewers from the L.A. Times on occasion.
In addition to big, sizzling, hot-off-the grill slices of slash-and-burn criticism (delivered with gusto by cast members Cynthia Burdick and Bob DeLucia), the script also cheerfully raids famous scenes from classic plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Ibsen, opening the way for some wild onstage costume changes and over-the-top parodies.
This is both a strength and weakness. Stage Fright is one of those “insider works”—those who recognize and appreciate the material will “get it” (and as a reviewer who’s spent the better part of two decades evaluating plays, I laughed myself silly several times). A high-school sophomore may not be tickled to quite the same degree.
There are also several scenes in which the storyline all but conks out, and the playwright turns polemicist, as the dialogue turns into a sort of spoken essay about theater and art. These scenes present a challenge for the cast and director Ron Adams, and while they deal with the situation fairly well, there are still some momentary slowdowns in terms of momentum.
Burdick and DeLucia—who’ve won seven Elly Awards between them (and demonstrate why in this show)—have a field day with their roles, and their energy is contagious. Scott Taylor also does well in a supporting part. Costume designer Susan McCandless (also artistic director) probably worked overtime coming up with all the different outfits and hair.
You may also notice some renovations to the Sutter Creek Theatre, a delightful little Art Deco space built in 1919. New owner Gary Schmieding opted to make improvements rather than turn the building into yet another Gold Rush town antique parlor—the public owes this man some thanks and gratitude.