Theater

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The curtain call saddened me. As the performers gathered on stage looking jacked up and happy, audience members were already pushing along the aisles and heading for the doors. I could understand their impatience: It had been a long and unsatisfactory evening. At the same time, I think it's rude to leave a theater before the curtain call. And I felt sorry for the actors, who'd tried hard — even though there's very little to this national touring production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The sets are two-dimensional, stylized and cartoony, but not wittily so. The costumes are unremarkable. The songs? Well, a couple are mildly funny -- but for the most part, they go on too long and accomplish too little. Choreography? Repetitive and forgettable. There's no particular theme or moral, not even a crooked or ironic one. The action concerns a pair of con men working a resort on the Riviera. Lawrence Jameson is a smooth, English-accented bounder, pretending to be an exiled king whose tiny, beleaguered country is fighting for its freedom. His shtick is ruined when vulgar, loud, dumb trickster Freddy Benson blunders onto his turf. Since the place isn't big enough for both of them, they lay a bet: Whoever can chisel $50,000 from a visiting American soap heiress gets to stay; the other agrees to vanish.

This plot has already had two film incarnations: Bedtime Story, which starred the inimitably suave David Niven and a cunning young Marlon Brando (you could think of it as an extended duel of not only con tricks but acting styles), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. For the idea to work, the audience has to empathize with the scoundrels, find them charming in their differing ways, enjoy watching them work their magic. You should find yourself rooting first for snooty Lawrence, then for irrepressible Freddy. But Jeffrey Lane's script drops all the shading and depth, so that the story devolves into a series of jokes, numbers and tableaux. Perhaps John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz succeeded in giving the two main characters some dimension in the Broadway version — but if they did, it was without support from Lane.

A vehicle this weak is bound to make an actor look bad. Jamie Jackson, who plays Lawrence, has the intelligence and presence required, and his English accent is impeccable (less so the Viennese, however). Doug Thompson exudes energy as Freddy, but he comes across as more a performer than an actor, as does everyone else in this non-Equity cast. For a while, I was trying to figure out why the casting director had deliberately sought out women with brassy, unpleasant voices — Suzanne Sole as Muriel, Jen Jenkins as a wild, red-haired Westerner, and Christine Colgate, who plays the lead, were all uniformly harsh and assaultive, though I got the impression that Colgate does have some range. Then I realized the problem lay not with the singers, but with a crude and amateurish sound system that distorted both singing and speaking voices, and thrust itself, like a fog of foul breath or a smeared window, between the audience and the performances, so that nothing came out clean and clear.

On second thought, given ticket prices ranging from $30 to $70, those people had earned their hasty exit.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman