'Tis the Old Season

Far off Broadway but reminiscent of the Great White Way's yesteryears

One of the fascinating oddities of theater in South Florida is the offbeat locations where it turns up. Local companies are found in some of the least likely places: The Caldwell Theatre and Florida Stage are in strip malls, the Broward Stage Door sits behind an IHOP. The Mosaic is tucked in a school facility behind a football field. The Sol's funky storefront is across the street from a railroad line, while GableStage clings tenuously to the flank of the Biltmore Hotel like a tick bird on a rhinoceros.

But when considering oddball locations, the Hollywood Playhouse may take the prize: This veteran company has been ensconced since the 1950s in a leafy, modest residential neighborhood in Hollywood. This is about as far off Broadway as one can possibly get.

And yet there is something quite charming about this company and its loyal troupe of old-time theater buffs who frequent its aging, well-preserved hallways. Like the neighborhood, the Hollywood Playhouse feels like a throwback to an older, perhaps gentler time when theaters presented well-constructed plays and sets that get the first applause: When it's curtain time at the Playhouse, there really is a curtain that goes up.

If that's the sort of stage you're looking for, then have I got a show for you. Open Season, a world premiere by the prolific local playwright Michael McKeever, is an old-fashioned Broadway-style comedy with a lot of charm and some clever badinage. It's a nostalgic ode to show business, the sort of middle-brow trifle that used to showcase some aging stars, tour Boston and New Haven in tryouts, then come into Broadway for respectable runs of 40 to 50 performances, after which time the play would work its way toward oblivion in smaller theaters across the heartland. Nowadays Broadway isn't a welcoming environment for this kind of play, unless it's a splashy musical revival or a high-profile British import, or both. And so we find Open Season priming in our neck of the woods, having skipped over the Broadway sendoff entirely.

The story is simple, perhaps too simple. Aging star Mallory Du Pre reigns as the grande dame of Broadway, attended by her harried son Christian, a former child star who has thrown over his own television career to attend to his mother's eccentricities. Their co-dependent dance is interrupted by the arrival of Mallory's actor father, Edmund, a Barrymore-like patriarch who announces he's broke and wants to move into Mallory's Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse. Mallory, who seethes with resentment for the white-maned wastrel, objects vigorously but when he's felled with a nicely timed heart attack, she has no choice but to take him in.

The dilemma of the uninvited, disruptive guest is a situation familiar to anyone who has been near a play (or for that matter a television set) since well before the playhouse got going in the Eisenhower era. Some may call this premise a classic situation, some may call it a cliché. Call it what you will, McKeever neatly sets up his characters and their problem in the first act but then seems rather at a loss as to what to do with them in the second. Things happen in Open Season sure enough, but mostly at random and by accident.

The cast is appealing but not stellar, which is what the play requires. As Mallory, Angie Radosh, who did good comedic service last season (Black Sheep, Out Of Season), certainly has a knack with drollery. And her tall, leggy look and pinned-up hair give her more than a little resemblance to Kate Hepburn, who in her day would have been a natural in the role. But Radosh is a better fit as an ensemble actress than carrying the play on her back as she must here. In truth Mallory is an exceptionally challenging part. Not only must we buy Mallory as a character, which Radosh pulls off nicely, but also Mallory as a top-rank classical actress and an undisputed star. The script puts Mallory onstage briefly in very difficult roles: as Goneril in King Lear and as Medea. Radosh glows in these brief star turns but she doesn't blaze. Without incandescence, it's hard to buy her star power.

Bill Yule fares better as her tippling, libidinous father Edmund, whose dapper charm belies an equally conflicted soul. A versatile actor, Yule has an innate comedic sense as well as excellent timing, and he plays both the little show-biz in-jokes and his brief Shakespearean orations with relish. McKeever himself assays Christian in a fine, underplayed performance that recalls Jack Lemmon's acting style (and look). Director Amy London has staged the proceedings with a sprightly pace, though she's hindered somewhat by David K. Sherman's elaborate, marble-walled two-level set.

A grand piano dominates the stage and suggests some staging potential but it is never used, except to hold up framed photos; it merely serves to block the action, forcing most of it downstage in a flat, lateral space. As a result the staging lacks much flow and the potential for physicality is severely reduced. But London has a good feel for Open Season's winsome, comedic charms and her skilled cast knows how to exploit them.

Still the production left me with two unfulfilled wishes. First, I wanted McKeever and London to push the play toward a deeper, more emotional core. Sure this is light fare, but McKeever has clearly set his sights on some serious issues of parent/child relationships and the need for individual freedom. He keeps referencing the dysfunctional family ties in King Lear and cites Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire as well. But perhaps a better reference here is Williams's The Glass Menagerie,in which a frustrated son finally breaks free of his domineering mother. That's part of the equation of Open Season, and in this McKeever has the potential to deliver a more challenging, risky story (and perhaps could be the solution to his second-act woes). Which brings me to my second wish: Even though McKeever as actor brings a number of gifts to this production, I wish he weren't onstage during this run. Had he stayed a playwright and sat in the house watching, I suspect he would have found a way to improve and deepen his script.

All that said, there is a good dose of old-fashioned charm to this Open Season. McKeever has created some appealing, if familiar characters and his dialogue is crisp and often witty. If the plot seems to self-destruct in the second act, well, even this seems an ode to Broadway of years ago -- second-act problems kept Moss Hart in business as a script doctor for years. And why do you suppose Neil Simon's nickname is Doc?

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