FORT WORTH Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre (TART) came out of the gate last year blazing, debuting with an outstanding production of The Woman in Black. It was bolstered by the sound and lighting effects needed to make that show work, but tight direction and smart acting were important ingredients in that mix.
So it’s a little baffling why the group’s artistic director, Allen Walker, picked John Patrick’s 1950 comedy The Curious Savage to close the group’s first, two-show season. It’s been a popular title with theaters since Lillian Gish created the title role on Broadway, although admittedly, more so with high schools and community theater.
Considering TART’s strong start, the hope was that this production might answer the question of why the show is worth reviving. Alas, it doesn’t.
Ethel P. Savage (Hazel Murphy) is a wealthy, eccentric woman whose family — Senator Titus Savage (Pat Dohoney), Lily Belle Savage (Laura Jones) and Judge Samuel Savage (Walter Betts) — has admitted her into a mental facility, with hopes to keep her locked up while they search for the $10 million in bonds she has hidden somewhere. In her new home, she quickly becomes popular with residents Florence (Karen Matheny), Fairy May (Ashley Bownds), Jeffrey (Eric Dobbins), Hannibal (Brad Stephens) and Mrs. Paddy (Kimberly Mickle), who never talks unless spewing about the things she hates.
The humor feels awfully dated, but as a study in characters, it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite “teaching” play for educational theater, in which actors often play roles they are much too young for. Its comedy is not as well crafted as Moss Hart’s earlier You Can’t Take It With You, another large-cast play with lots of quirky characters; nor does it have the same level of heart. But, in the right hands, it could be amusing enough.
The bigger challenge for TART is that with a larger cast, the chance for uneven performances is greater, and Walker doesn’t avoid that trap. Murphy, Dobbins and Stephens are the standouts, but on opening night, there was a general lack of snappy timing that this play needs to keep it from sagging. Also, while these people are not full-blown crazy, there should be a bit more cuckoo in this nest so that the end message — that the “normal” humans are really the out-of-mind ones — is stronger.
Murphy’s Ethel is not as flighty as she has been portrayed, but she keeps a sense of regality about her, and in the end it’s a charming performance. Dobbins and Stephens give the strongest performances of the residents, both clear in the characterizations, and Jones is the best of the Savage family. As for the rest, it’s a wildly mixed bag.
Ryan Matthieu Smith’s period, well-fitting costumes are a highlight. Walker opens the show with a film that gives us the title of the play and the cast list, backed by swelling, cinematic music. And in a more thoughtful touch, Walker adds final tableaux that depict what the characters’ dreams might look like. But it all comes off as overly sappy, dragging down what could have been a light, snappy mid-century comedy.
At one point, when Ethel tells a story of how one reviewer said that one of her stage performances “set the theater back 50 years,” it’s hard not to empathize with that pundit.