By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
If Laguna Playhouse were said to have a power couple, it would be Rita Rudner and Martin Bergman.
Since their marriage in 1988, they’ve collaborated on countless projects, including the plays “Tickled Pink” and “Act 3” that were produced at the Laguna Playhouse.
Now in its world premiere at their home venue, “Staged” is their latest work in partnership: Bergman directs Rudner in a script they co-wrote as a vehicle for her. That’s only fitting, as its subject is also a show-biz power couple – albeit a fictional one.
Fenella Fennington (Rudner) and husband Jarvis Haverly (Mike McShane) are among the brightest lights of stage and screen. Their tempestuous marriage frequently disrupts their careers, and “Staged” sees them battle it out in public and divorce, only to reunite years later.
You’d be spot-on if the antics of Fennington and Haverly remind you of Taylor and Burton, a notoriously embattled show-biz power couple of the ’50s, ’60s and later decades.
Whether Rudner and Bergman intend to elicit this comparison is almost beside the point, because their script digs a little deeper than simply depicting the couple’s well-publicized battles and holding them up for ridicule. No, “Staged” has more on its mind than simply one-dimensional comedy.
In Laguna, three elements skillfully tread the fine line between the uproarious and the delicate, wherein characters who at first glance are caricatures struggle with insecurity and self-doubt: The script, Bergman’s adroit direction of it, and the quartet of actors surrounding Rudner and McShane.
“Staged” begins 20 years ago with a performance of “Antony and Cleopatra” starring Haverly and Fennington that goes awry, devolving into a spectacular on-stage row between the two high-profile stars.
The next scene takes us to the present-day, as Fenella has a lunch meeting with producer Ezra Pector (Brian Michael Jones), whose parents were the producers whose careers were ruined by the bickering star duo.
Ezra has a brand-new, two-person play called “Two on a Bench,” and he wants Fennington and Haverly as his stars, calling their participation “cosmic reparation” for having destroyed his parents’ careers and lives.
Of course, working together again means the two will have to put their differences aside, and that won’t be easy.
Can the duo co-exist after years of estrangement? Can they share the stage again after their well-publicized Roman-era fiasco? After all, as Jarvis notes to Fenella, “we have years of scar tissue to get over.”
Vanity gets the better of them and they agree to co-star in “Bench,” but don’t bet that you can predict where “Staged” goes from there.
Bergman and Rudner’s script provides the two stars and their mega-egos a steady stream of acid quips as they snipe back and forth. The script they’ve crafted delights not just in its ingenious plotting, but in a laugh-inducing style wherein one character’s drug rehab is referred to as “plastic surgery of the mind.”
Yet another example: Whenever Jarvis feels cornered, he breaks into the delivery of a Shakespearean monologue – eg. the “band of brothers” speech from “Henry V” – his odd way of handling stress.
Not simply brilliant and scathingly funny, the text also abounds in ample touches of pathos and humanity.
Rudner’s exquisite comic timing makes her every utterance a delight, especially given the deep, husky vocal delivery she adopts for Fenella.
In lesser hands, Jarvis would have simply been a pompous buffoon, but the deft script and McShane’s nuanced reading of his character deliver poignance along with the laughs, especially in Jarvis’ growing awareness of his own mortality. For all his bluster, Jarvis is riddled with self-doubt, seeking validation at every turn.
While Rudner and McShane and their larger-than-life characters are deliciously shallow and glib, and get the lion’s share of our attention, “Staged” is populated with enough colorful oddballs to tickle our fancy.
First and foremost of these is Katya (Annie Abrams). At first a supporting character in
“Antony and Cleopatra,” she winds up as Jarvis’ second wife – and mother to their now-teenage daughter.
As Jarvis’ ex-wife number two, Katya winds up back in the star duo’s orbit, an awkward scenario “Staged” plays for maximum comedic effect, with Abrams a first-rate straight-woman to Rudner and McShane.
Jones paints producer Ezra as a youthful, preppie-ish techie whose primary m.o. is to mollify all those around him. Don’t think, though, that you’ve got this character figured out, because “Staged” has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Brian Lohmann does yeoman work in four roles, including a colorful cowboy-style Broadway director, a touchy-feely New-Age hippie restaurateur and a bombastic podcaster whose handle is “Barry Broadway.”
Not only is Lohmann a quick-change artist; his characterizations are so distinctive and singular, you’d swear you were seeing four different actors.
Kelly Holden Bashar likewise skillfully essays multiple roles, notably as Gerry, the young stagehand hired to help keep “Two on a Bench” on course to its opening run.
The script, and Bergman’s direction of it, make “Staged” a fast-moving romp that delivers its laughs and sweetly serious moments with equal vigor. The production’s scenic design (by Stephen Gifford), lighting (Nita Mendoza) and costumes (Stacey Nezda) help keep the show moving at breakneck speed.
If you love Rudner and her work, you’ll want to see “Staged” asap. And if you’ve never seen her in Laguna, you won’t want to miss your chance to see her at her best.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through February 12. Running time (including intermission): 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets: $50 to $75. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org