In Brief

The butler did it: Don Stephenson and John Scherer in By Jeeves.Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons

Out of a sense of self-preservation, having resisted the lures of tobacco and hard liquor, I have also avoided the habit-forming fiction of P. G. Wodehouse. My understanding of the peripeties of the master-servant relationship remained limited to the lessons provided by Cervantes, Molière, and Diderot, and never progressed to Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Now Alan Ayckbourn (book, lyrics, direction) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) have come to my rescue with their “musical entertainment” By Jeeves, in an Anglo-American production that falls somewhere between “By Jove!” and “Jiminy Cricket!” It comes closest in spirit to that Spanish masterpiece, Moreto’s El Desdén Con El Desdén, which still awaits a viable English version. There, too, a smart servant sagely guides his rash employer.

The problems in By Jeeves involve (a) a stolen banjo threatening to prevent Bertie Wooster from giving a benefit recital for the rebuilding of the parish church steeple, and (b) how to straighten out the sundry romantic entanglements that culminate in a country weekend at Totleigh Towers, which, without Jeeves’s intervention, might turn into Fawlty Towers.

I will not be so presumptuous as to presume to be able to summarize the story of By Jeeves, a show that, starting years ago as Jeeves, has enjoyed a marathon parturition. Mangled by critics and audiences, it metamorphosed into By Jeeves, saved not by word of mouth but by a byword and a number of other changes. The present, more intimate offering – reduced in cast, scenery, and length – can boast a pleasantly pocket quality. Everything is streamlined, save a car made of tacked-together crates. But the amorous complications – involving the likes of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stiffy Byng, Harold “Stinker” Pinker, and the sole American, Cyrus Budge III (Junior) – remain marvelously knotty without being the least bit naughty. And, thanks to Jeeves, even the banjo crisis is resolved.

The hummable tunes are startlingly unassuming, as if Lord Lloyd Webber had never been exposed to a Puccini or Menotti. Set, costumes, and lighting stay within a seemingly church-benefit budget, but with saucy tongue well embedded in lots of cheek. And Ayckbourn’s triune contribution is worthy of that master’s dramaturgic know-how. Jeeves, the domestic of genius, is embodied by a savvy British import, Martin Jarvis, who, by a mere inclination of his head, droopiness of eyelids, and world-weariness of voice, conveys the quintessence of impeccably discreet butlerhood. As Bertie, the American John Scherer seamlessly keeps up with him as he marries British brittleness to good old homegrown mugging. These two are condignly seconded by the other thespians.

What By Jeeves wears on its star-crossed sleeves may be more nerve than heart, but it is heartily droll: a piece of impenitently delinquent sophomoric sardonicism I would characterize as juvenile astringency.

It does not take a failed musical for us to exit humming the scenery. David Lindsay-Abaire’s Wonder of the World is an often funny but scattershot nonmusical farce that we leave singing the praises of David Gallo’s irresistible sets. Even if there were nothing else, those sets alone would be worth twice the price of admission. They transport you from the muddle of a fraught bedroom to the middle of the roaring Niagara Falls (via a bus, a spume-bathed bridge, a cruise boat, three outrageous theme restaurants, and a turmoil-riven hotel suite) with the rapid-fire ubiquity of a Marx Brothers movie. And the lunatically absurdist comedy, though occasionally out of breath, keeps up with the frolicking sets.

The piece concerns two wives on the run: thrill-seeking Cass (Sarah Jessica Parker), who abandons her unadventurous husband, and bibulously motormouthed Lois (Kristine Nielsen), who is abandoned by hers. They head for Niagara Falls, the one seeking romantic fulfillment, the other death in a water-tossed barrel. Neither quite achieves her goal, but both get loony excitement from an elderly married couple of amateurish gumshoes, a frantic husband in pursuit, a gentle, sex-starved riverboat captain, a zany woman psychotherapist in clown garb, and several outrageous others.

This is not so much a play as a scrapbook of funny snapshots, but there is sprightly staging by Christopher Ashley, and a canny cast that also includes Bill Raymond, Kevin Chamberlin, Amy Sedaris, the delectable Alan Tudyk, and the incomparable Marylouise Burke.

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, is not only one of the funniest farces known to me, but also one of the most ingeniously constructed. It is about the theater, both on the stage and behind it, and about hapless human players both onstage and in life. With utmost ease, joke tops joke, and sight gag topples into sight gag, until no spectatorial side remains unsplit. What happens during a dubious production of a questionable farce-within-a-farce, during the dress rehearsal (onstage), a subsequent performance (backstage), and a farewell performance (onstage again), is a delicious send-up of both the life of the theater and, indirectly, the theater of life.

This American re-creation of a Royal National Theatre production – same director (Jeremy Sams) and designers (Robert Jones and Tim Mitchell) – unhappily suffers from some of the Broadway cast. Patti LuPone, bogged down in an inscrutable Cockney accent never heard east of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, manages to be largely undecipherable; Faith Prince, as another prima donna, cannot shake a certain stale faithprinceishness. Richard Easton and Edward Hibbert come by the accent naturally, but the former is too undilapidated, the latter too hammy. Peter Gallagher, as the beleaguered and philandering director, is best; the three others suffice.

The first act is rough going, but by the second and third, the play so uproariously transcends the production that performances hardly matter. If I could choose how I will die, it would be during a future, not too proximous, all-British revival of Noises Off, laughing.

By Jeeves
By Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn; staged by Alan Ayckbourn.
Wonder of the World
By David Lindsay-Abaire; staged by Christopher Ashley.
Noises Off
By Michael Frayn; staged by Jeremy Sams.

In Brief