By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Plays about theater companies putting on a play are rife in the world of theater, and that stands to reason. What playwright, actor, director or producer hasn’t struggled through getting a play up for an audience and not thought about how funny it might be to write a play depicting their travails?
Daniel J. Sullivan’s “Inspecting Carol” does exactly that, depicting the monumental troubles of an embattled small-time theater company that has just lost all of its NEA funding and has seemingly one last chance to regain it.
Newport Theatre Arts Center revives this 1991 comedy just in time for the Christmas holidays, and that makes perfect sense, since the story’s Soap Box Playhouse is just days from opening its annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Director Zorah Bloch (Ashley Montgomery) is doing all she can to keep the show together as its seven actors bicker and squabble during rehearsals. Stage manager M.J. (Victoria Serra) helps Zorah on one hand and cracks wise on the other. And managing director Karen Emory (Bobbi Fagone) breaks the news to Zorah that the company is flat broke.
Just as word leaks out that the NEA is sending an “inspector” to evaluate the company and its woeful production of “A Christmas Carol,” actor Wayne Wellacre (Sean Wellengard) wanders in and requests an audition.
The show is already cast and closing in on opening night, but everyone suspects that Wayne might be from the NEA, there to evaluate the show and issue a report that will affect the troupe’s federal funding. So, everyone bends over backwards to accommodate him, including giving him a role in the show.
That’s pretty much the long and short of “Inspecting Carol.” Ineptitude has tremendous comedic potential, and many behind-the-scenes plays depict bumbling theater companies to great effect. Sullivan, though, has imbued most of his characters with acrimony, which simply isn’t particularly funny.
Because of this underlying flaw, audiences have little invested in the story or its characters. Had Sullivan made the troupe’s members merely quirky but also genuinely talented, we’d be rooting for them to succeed and would want them to get new life via renewed funding.
Newport’s “Inspecting Carol” cast is thus undermined from the get-go. Is it really fair to ask any theater company to try to garner laughs from such a paltry, sitcom-style script?
Michael Frayn’s brilliant, and brilliantly funny play “Noises Off” is generally regarded as perhaps the greatest backstage comedy ever, piling one incredibly funny scenario on top of another until the audience is reduced to a helpless state of laughter. If ever there was an anti-“Noises Off,” “Inspecting Carol” is it.
Despite all of this, not all is lost at NTAC. Director Floyd Harden and his cast do just about everything possible to pump life and some laughs into what is essentially a turkey, and the production and design teams provide top-notch work in support of the disappointing script.
One of Sullivan’s more inspired ideas is showing Walter (Van Hudson), the company’s only black actor, portraying all of Dickens’ various Spirits, appearing in a succession of costumes that are increasingly absurd – and kudos to Kat Scott and Jenny Wentworth for the visually striking costumes they’ve created for Hudson/Walter.
We can actually feel Walter’s pain, and Hudson wrings almost uncomfortable laughs from this novice actor who admits to his peers that he’s “frozen with fear” whenever in front of an audience.
Some of Harden’s other cast members also have their moments. Montgomery’s Zorah can be admired for her fanatical dedication to the art of theater, her tightly-wound neuroticism deftly played for laughs, and Serra’s no-nonsense M.J. is an enjoyably snarky smart-Alec.
Mary Price Moore and Rick Kopps are fun as married Brits, old show-biz pros for so long that nothing rattles them. The characters are easy to take, so watching Kopps and Moore is a joy. (Dig how Moore’s character is forced to adopt an American accent while playing Mrs. Cratchit, and how she complies by speaking like a female John Wayne.)
Overall, Sullivan scarcely delineates his characters – for example, Wellengard’s Wayne is naïve, needy and almost irritatingly goofy – and assigns each just a superficial trait or two.
Sullivan does redeem himself here and there, such as with lines like a troupe member’s indignity over the NEA actually having the nerve to expect quality (!) from tiny companies like theirs, and a similar one-liner where a character says “Of course we’re broke! We’re an arts institution!”
It’s not hard to imagine “Inspecting Carol” as a witty, nimble, sharply and tightly written farce that both captures the spirit of the holidays yet also embodies what it means to be 100 percent dedicated to live theater, whatever the cost.
That would have meant either a complete overhaul of the script by Sullivan himself or the show’s original producers, or an entirely different play by a more talented and more creative playwright than Sullivan.
Since reopening after the pandemic, NTAC has served up several productions that depict a play within a play or otherwise give us a backstage look at the goings-on of live theater or the world of moviemaking, including “I Hate Hamlet,” “Drop Dead” and “It’s Only a Play” and, now, “Inspecting Carol.”
What are the odds of hitting a theatrical jackpot with such scripts? Considerably low. There is, after all, only one “Noises Off.” So audiences can only hope the company lets a few more seasons pass before scheduling yet another play about people putting on a play.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through December 10. Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $30. Ticket purchase/information: 949-631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.