Maybe it's just the revue format that's hard to get a handle on, but the intermittently amusing A Thurber Carnival at RiverTree Theatre doesn't quite make it as an integrated evening of theater. Though the performers appear to have plenty of affection for the mild witticisms of longtime New Yorker essayist James Thurber, the production seems under-rehearsed and oddly clunky.
The show opens with seven of the actors dressed in matching vests and cummerbunds dancing into the theater to the strains of a popular instrumental from the 1960s. Each time the music stops, a performer steps forward and gives the punchline to one of Thurber's sardonic cartoons (you don't need the drawing to get the picture). It's a messy sequence, with far too many blunders, slow cues and awkward, unsynchronized dance movements.
In the first sketch, "Fables for Our Time," the actors settle in as we watch three ironic versions of real fables, all with Aesop-like morals. For example, when Little Red Riding Hood visits her grandmother in the woods and finds a wolf dressed in the old lady's cap and installed in her bed, she doesn't pause to ask why her features have changed--she knows a wolf from a grandmother. Moral: It isn't as easy to fool little girls as it used to be.
The best piece of the evening follows as Pat Mahoney enters, seats himself in an easy chair and tells the story of "The Night the Bed Fell"--a wonderfully complex family story (think of Garrison Keillor) about neurotic fear of unlikely dangers, missteps in the dark, mothers, sons and willful fathers. Thurber understands human nature and gently mocks it without despising it. And Mahoney tells the tale with a real feeling not only for storytelling, but also for Thurber's gentle ironies and sweet absurdities.
The next piece parodies all those who would improve on the classics: A group of literati decides to rewrite sad poems by great authors and make them more upbeat. Poe's "The Raven" evolves from messenger of doom into peace prophet--"Quoth the raven, 'No more war.'" In the clever "Macbeth Murder Mystery," a woman buys a copy of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy by mistake, thinking it a cheap murder mystery. So accustomed is she to thinking like Miss Marple, she decides Macbeth didn't really do it--MacDuff killed King Duncan, Lady Macbeth is just shielding Macbeth with the sleepwalking scene, and MacDuff gets away with it. Less successful is the anti-war "The Last Flower," in which a circular tale of universal destruction is told with the aid of slides.
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The second act really bogs down in "The Pet Department," a piece about a radio counselor for disturbed pets, and "File and Forget," a drawn-out tale about misunderstood instructions over a book order. But "Mr. Prebble Gets Rid of His Wife," in which a man who wants to run off with his secretary plots to murder his wife and finds her oddly cooperative, is blackly hilarious (Charles Wingerter is terrific with Lorraine Reynolds). And "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," though a tad awkwardly staged, boasts an endearing performance by Dana McCarthy as the perpetually dreamy would-be hero.
There must be a better way to open and close this show than the goofy dance routines used here, because the material is certainly good enough to entertain, and the performers are eager and involved. The problem lies in not paying proper respect to Thurber's sophistication, which leads to uncalled-for cutesiness.
A Thurber Carnival, through October 26 at RiverTree Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 825-8150.