By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There is a crucial moment in screwball comedies when someone sensible, someone with a placid, routine, predictable existence, finds himself having another sort of life altogether — for no reason he can quite put a finger on.
It’s what happens to Porter Lawrence (Ron Pederson), a teacher of seventh grade English composition, early in Stewart Lemoine’s Skirts on Fire, the grand finale to Teatro La Quindicina’s 2018 season.
In this giddy tale of a literary hoax in ‘50s Manhattan, last seen by Teatro audiences in 2003, the circumspect person with the circumspect name will find himself sitting on the floor of a diner with no chairs (it’s called the Sweet ‘N’ Low). He’ll discover he’s having coffee with Hartwood Keane, the notoriously grouchy literary reclusive (à la J.D. Salinger) who wrote St. Margaret’s Lap, “the most anthologized short story in the middle third of the 20th century.”
In an apparently uncontrollable escalation of the madcap in his life, Porter Lawrence will be joined by the breezy socialite charmer Alton Doane (Andrew MacDonald-Smith). And he will be briefly appalled, shortly thereafter, to discover that he himself is in disguise, in the middle of a literary scam.
None of ordinary rules he lives by seem to apply. “Copying and cheating are so wrong!” he declares firmly, only to be flummoxed by Alton’s blithe rejoinder. “I don’t agree! We all deserve access to the same right answers. That’s what public education should be about. There ought never to be exclusive ownership of the truth….” The same goes for the principle of authorship, which Porter has hitherto regarded as “very important.”
Clearly there are larger forces at work in the cosmos. Complications multiply; deceptions are contagious; the imminence of chaos is enlivening. And momentum doesn’t have u-turns. As Alton says brightly, “there’s no going back with fraudulence.”
There’s no going back, either, on a spirit of adventure once unlocked. A cup of coffee at the Sweet and Low Diner, wham! The ‘let’s see what happen next’ principle is unleashed in Porter Lawrence’s life, in the company of a breezy agent provocateur whose motives beyond fun are obscure even to himself.
The screwball sense that life can be more fun extends to the other characters too, who have the advantage of the playwright’s witty wisecracks and throw-aways (and a Teatro ensemble of actors who know what to do with them).
At the Feminine Home Digest, editor Mrs. Evangeline Gold (Andrea House, in hilarious New York grande dame cadence), “a widow; not the overly sad kind, though,” has sailed in to the office to assess articles for this month’s edition — among them “Cuba: Who Needs It?” and “Keeping Children Likeable” — and to meet the elusive literary giant Hartwood Keane. One thing leads — no, races — to another.
A day that started with coffee ends with champagne, at a party in the smallest hotel room in New York. And Mrs. Gold, who’s been dating Alton Doane (“it’s well within my rights to amuse myself with a good-looking younger man who’s nowhere near as smart as I am”), will be thoroughly enjoying a different kind of spectacle.
The plucky would-be reporter Claudia Birch (Paula Humby) in hot pursuit of a scoop will have been through a number of outlandish disguises, and arrived at society hostess — even though she’s staying at the Marmosan Hotel For Working Women.
The sassy waitress Shirley Hoople (the delightful Louise Lambert), who knows an awful lot more about everything than anyone else, will be in a maid’s getup, passing around spicy canapés: “this morning I was working in a diner. Now I’m serving champagne to high society.”
Thetis Kipp (Kendra Connor), Mrs. Gold’s grim and purse-lipped secretary whose fierce disapproval would freeze olive oil at 100 paces, will amaze everyone with … no, my lips are sealed; life, like screwballs, should be full of surprises.
MacDonald-Smith and Pederson are a very funny pair as, respectively, the charming playboy instigator and the solid citizen transformed into manic experimenter. Both are first-rate comic actors. And the way their precise physical energies, so different at first, seem to collide and then converge is expertly negotiated in the production.
To see tall lanky MacDonald-Smith fling himself onto a cushion on the floor, or wave casually in Central Park, “oh hey, it’s “Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart, Here, Kitty! Kitty!,” in Central Park, is a lark in itself. So is watching Pederson exit, a panicky headfirst charge into the unknown from a character who will later declare “it’s time to rush into things without much thought.”
Skirts on Fire is a dizzy enterprise that seems to invite the much-frayed term “romp” even in its high-spirited scene changes, set to the oeuvre of Louis Prima. Disguise and transformation are a crucial part of the plot: kudos to Leona Brausen’s revolving door of witty period costumes.
For this pellmell cavort through town, Chantel Fortin’s design calls for a diner, an office, or a spartan hotel room to arrive onstage as precipitously as the events of the plot. The pillars, brilliantly coloured by Matthew Alan Currie’s lighting, turn out to be trees in Central Park. Yes, it’s an urban wonderland, to be sure. And as Porter Lawrence notes, “we are not always in control of our destinies.”
The only proper response is laughter and more bubbles. And there’s plenty of both in Skirts On Fire.
Skirts On Fire
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert, Kendra Connor, Andrea House, Paula Humby
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Oct. 13