By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Comedies that take us behind the scenes of a production wring laughs by showing us the difficulties of putting on a play. Most theater lovers would correctly regard “Noises Off” and the more recent “Curtains,” a hybrid of backstage musical comedy and murder mystery, as among the best of this genre.
“Drop Dead!” was co-written by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore in 1991. “Noises Off” had been around for nine years, already widely praised, so “Drop Dead!” could have been its playwrights’ answer to it, homage to it, or their attempt to replicate its brilliance and success.
If only the part farce, part murder mystery could have scaled the zany heights of “Noises Off,” Newport Theatre Arts Center would have a huge hit on its hands. Alas, it would take a considerable overhaul for it to even begin to resemble the earlier masterpiece.
Things start out with a now-familiar scenario: We’re watching the frantic efforts of a troupe of thespians as they bungle their way through the final rehearsal of a new murder mystery called “Drop Dead!” that’s 24 hours away from opening at “a small, shabby, underfunded and poorly staffed theater somewhere in New York.”
Based on their struggles, it’s clear the troupers are far from ready for an opening night. Director Gregory Cohen’s cast deliberately overplays the ineptitude of the six actors as they’re stymied by dialogue, blocking, stage direction and props.
As such, we quickly see that the “Drop Dead!” being staged within “Drop Dead!” is a dire disaster rife with cringe-worthy amateur theatrics, missed cues, botched special effects and the like.
Creating more of a pressure cooker for its hapless, helpless half-dozen are Victor Le Pewe (Jack Millis), a once-famed Broadway director now on the downside of his career; P.G. Banks (Paul Burt), the bellicose producer who spews insults at Le Pewe and his cast; and the play’s author, Alabama Miller (Ian MacGregor), whose Tennessee Williams-like name indicates his artistic aspirations and concomitant pretensions.
The only person above reproach is Phillip (MarcAntonio Murillo), the stressed, overworked aide to Le Pewe who’s selflessly determined to please those in charge and help the thespians by giving them whatever they need.
About a quarter of the way into NTAC’s staging, we get the point that the play within the play is doomed. At this point, both the show they’re staging and the play framing it drop dead, as Van Zandt and Milmore’s contrived script seeks ways to intertwine its various elements into a plausible second act.
Just before intermission, and in much the same fashion as the later (and more brilliant) “Curtains,” a key character is murdered, an event that starts a backstage killing spree that blows the minds, frays the nerves and traumatizes a company already frazzled dealing with an offstage murder of the play they’re in.
This inventive plot thread goes part of the way toward redeeming the evening – just not far enough.
In all fairness to playwrights Van Zandt and Milmore, show-biz parodies – at least, those that are worthy of praise – aren’t as easy to pull off as they might seem. So that leaves Cohen, his cast, and NTAC’s creative team at a considerable disadvantage.
It’s to their tremendous credit that they acquit themselves so well and are able to keep things moving even when the play’s foundation, its script, essentially leaves them to fend for themselves.
Jon Korbonski, Justine DeAngelo, Mary Price Moore, Yvonne Robertson, Bobby D. Lux and John Vann skillfully sketch the mind-boggling ineptitude of the actors they portray – at first in final dress, then, on opening night, as they react to a play that has devolved into a sadly funny shambles.
In a further nod to “Noises Off,” we watch as they do their best to improvise. That it’s not the strong suit of any of them makes their plight all the funnier.
Korbonski’s Alexander once shone in regional theater but his star is now tarnished. He’s hilariously unable to pronounce Penelope, the character name of his leading lady – DeAngelo, “a little porn star from Van Nuys” making her debut in legitimate theater.
Moore’s Mona Monet is, like Alexander, a has-been oblivious to the fact that she’s no longer the mega-star of yore. The spectacular ineptitude of Robertson’s Mrs. Crawford springs from the fact she’s deaf as a post.
Lux’s Dick Scorsese regards his acting as a side job, having been hired only because he’s related to Martin Scorsese. Vann’s eager-to-please young Chaz overplays his roles as the doomed play’s servant.
Millis’ Le Pewe heaps scorn and profanities upon his cast, while Burt’s bellowing Banks is hilariously crude, rude and bombastic. While the mutual impatience and dislike of this duo is laugh-worthy, it also tends to become tiresome.
Saddled with the show’s most thankless roles are MacGregor and Murillo.
MacGregor’s playwright character is a mishmash of immortal writer wannabe, buttinsky inserting himself into the production of his script, and third-rate actor craving stage time.
Murillo’s harried assistant and stage-hand is unceasingly loyal, devoted at all costs to calming the ever-enraged Le Pewe, the better with which to keep “Drop Dead!” from dropping dead.
In praise of NTAC, its production is chock-full of enjoyable details, and it’s great to see a show that runs counter to the Christmas-themed family programming typically seen this time of year.
Newport’s production is not only slickly staged but good looking – notably, Jim Huffman’s set design and scenic artistry, and Tom Phillips and Larry Watts’ costume designs, which inject bright red into a lightly monochromatic color scheme to showcase the themes of bloodshed, murder and mayhem coursing through the script.
In the minus column, “Drop Dead!” has a nagging flaw: It’s just not particularly funny – at least not in a way a great script generates and then sustains laughs from start to finish.
Yes, it’s wild and frantic. Yes, much of it is improbable and just plain silly. But truly funny? Not by a longshot.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through December 11. Running time (including intermission): 1 hour, 40 minutes. 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $20-$25. Ticket purchase/information: 949-631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.