The script is by Ferenc Molnar, a Hungarian author best known for the bittersweet Liliom, which, in the hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein, became Carousel. It's a lighter, fluffier piece than Liliom, and OpenStage's version is translated by the gut-convulsingly funny P.G. Wodehouse. In short, it sounds like a can't-miss proposition.
But this is a talky and somewhat dated script. Its best moments occur when the actors break the frame and comment on the play-making enterprise itself. At the beginning, for instance, writer-producers Turai and Mansky are talking with their composer-protegé Albert about the difficulties of beginning a play. How do you let the audience know that you're in an ancient castle renovated into a hotel, they wonder? How do you communicate who's who in the cast and what events have preceded the current action?
The actual plot concerns an overheard conversation between Ilona, the star of the men's operetta, and Almady, a hammy, washed-up actor who was once her sponsor and has been pursuing her ever since. Albert is engaged to Ilona, and her apparent infidelity leaves him heartbroken. It's up to the wily Turai to create a scenario -- a play-within-a-play, naturally -- that absolves Ilona, reassures Albert and, just for the sheer pleasure of it, humiliates Almady.
The Play's the Thing aims for the glittering, high-style charm of 1920s Vienna or Budapest. It wants to be Arthur Schnitzler. But it's talky. There are some good jokes, but they get repeated until they lose their humor. In addition, the central situation is insufficiently risqué. Ilona may be dallying a little with Almady, but she's also clearly sending him packing.
For this kind of piece to succeed, you need highly experienced, clever direction, as well as intensely elegant costumes and settings and very assured actors. But here the direction is literal and unimaginative, and several key characterizations are shaky. Furthermore, the actors never establish a good rhythm in working with each other. Ken Fenwick holds the evening together with an authoritative Turai, although he lacks the character's lightness and humor. Marlin May, too, turns in a solid performance as Mansky, but you sometimes feel he's been left in the lurch by director Deborah Marie Hlinka; the character isn't sufficiently defined. Although Brion J. Humphrey is not the standard leading-man type, he is pleasantly diffident as Albert. Playing Ilona, Ailie Holland is all over the place. Her mannerisms are stagey to different degrees throughout, and I couldn't tell when the staginess was the actress's and when it was an intentional representation of Ilona. Charlie Ferrie has similar problems in Almady's early scenes, but he is laugh-out-loud funny during the play-within-a-play. And Don Kraus has some nice moments as Dwornitschek.