The Torch-Bearers
 by George Kelly, Williamstown Theatre Festival, July 29 – August 9

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Jessica Hecht and Katherine McGrath in George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Jessica Hecht and Katherine McGrath in George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

The Torch-Bearers
by George Kelly
adapted and directed by Dylan Baker

Becky Ann Baker – Mrs. Paula Ritter
Yusef Bulos – Mr. Spindler
John Doherty – Mr. Stage Manager
Katie Finneran – Miss Florence McCrickett
Philip Goodwin – Mr. Ralph Twiller
Jessica Hecht – Mrs. Clara Sheppard
Edward Herrmann – Mr. Huxley Hossefrosse
Andrea Martin – Mrs. Nelly Fell
Lizbeth Mackay – Jenny
Katherine McGrath – Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli
John Rubinstein – Mr. Frederick Ritter
James Waterston – Teddy Spearing

Often, whether you’re a theatre-lover, an aspiring playwright, or a social historian, you’ll learn more from second-rate literature than you will from the masters. When we were students, we founded a Paul de Kock Reading Society, and to our amazement, we found that we were not reading soft-core trash, but an interesting and detailed commentary on nineteenth century Parisian society. Paul de Kock’s more literal mind absorbed observations which were ignored by Balzac and Flaubert, and even by a naturalist like Zola later on. I’m not assuming that George Kelly was second-rate. He was known as a perfectionist, and his work shows good taste and serious craft, but he was obviously no O’Neill. In The Torch-Bearers we learn far more about the Little Theatre Movement than Chekhov teaches us about Symbolist drama in The Seagull, for example. Kelly’s mission was to portray the evils of the phenomenon, which he hated, in realistic detail, as if he were an illustrator for Harper’s, while stamping it out with ridicule. In his concrete perceptions he was more like Gerhard Hauptmann than Chekhov, even the Chekhov of the short stories. One might also think of Manchester Realism, of which Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice is the sole survivor. (These British provincials enjoyed some popularity on Broadway.) Kelly may be a bit too opinionated and literal to be either a great social commentator or a great playwright. He puts his own opinions straight into the mouth of his hero, Frederick Ritter, and there is little ambiguity in his judgement of the theatrical ladies and their men. If we ever soften towards these stupid, incompetent, and selfish people, it is because they entertain us, at least when they are as splendidly played as they were by the impressive cast assembled by the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

George Kelly’s wit is a trifle heavy-handed for my taste, and his characters antics seemed rather strung-out to me. Kelly uses slapstick humor as well, but of a carefully modulated kind, so that it is clearly distinct from what people would have seen in vaudeville. His gags are brief and diligently reflect character. He wrote for the carriage-trade, in a way, although he was nothing like Philip Barry. I didn’t find my self laughing very often, but I enjoyed Kelly’s jokes and liked him as a personality, in spite of his tendencies towards a rather ferocious misogyny. I was also a trifle bored, but it was an ever-so-pleasant boredom, which is entertaining and restorative in itself.

The premise is a classic theme of comedy, of which the locus classicus must be Aristophanes’ Clouds or Molière’s Tartuffe. A self-proclaimed “expert” enters the life of a normal, likeable, and by no means exceptionally intelligent peer of ours and, usually for material or egoistic profit, wreaks havoc in his victim’s life. Once the plot has turned the villain is summarily expelled, often with blows. Kelly shows no more sympathy towards Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli than Aristophanes has for his Socrates. She hears what Mr. Ritter has to say about her, every word, but she is so thoughtless and her skin is so thick that she can walk away from the contretemps without excessive suffering. We are a long way from Tartuffe’s self-realization; The Torch-Bearers shows us rather a sort of École des Femmes.

It has to be admitted that The Torch-Bearers, as interesting as it is, could prove as indigestible as a pot roast, if it were not for the terrific care and talent brought to bear on this wonderful production. I can only lavish praise and thanks on Dylan Baker and the Williamstown Theatre Festival for bringing back this historical curiosity in such an enjoyable form. The play is good enough in itself to make this worthwhile. Mr. Baker adapted the play by merging the second and third acts, with considerable cuts. That notwithstanding, it was still a generous evening of theatre, but no more than what Kelly thought was due his audience for the price of their tickets.

Kelly’s message is “Know thyself,” with a subtext “Death to amateur theatricals,” and his jokes are based primarily on the lack of self-awareness, really the stupidity and mental or physical incompetence of his theatrical aspirants. None of the characters have any redeeming value, beyond the Ritters and their housemaid, Jenny. Even with a strong cast this comic strategy can prove both repetitious and more irritating than funny. The jokes were indeed repetitious, but not fatally so, and it is a tribute to the skill of Dylan Baker and his better than strong cast, that the characters had sufficient allure to hold our attention for the evening without exciting an agonizing level of vexation. The characterizations, thanks both to Mr. Kelly and the Williamstown players, were individual, colorful, even quirky.

John Rubinstein, Becky Ann Baker, Andrea Martin, Katherine McGrath in George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
John Rubinstein, Becky Ann Baker, Andrea Martin, Katherine McGrath in George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

The play opened with a wonderful array of accents one associates with Philadelphia or some city of the sort. (I was surprised, however, to realize later that Jenny was supposed to be British.) To contemporary sensibilities, Frederick Ritter, who enters first, might be the worst kind of male chauvinist, but Kelly liked him and meant his audience to like him. John Rubinstein carried off a tour de force in making us join in. Returned suddenly without announcement from a curtailed business trip, Mr. Ritter finds the sitting room furniture in disarray. Nothing is where it should be, and he wants to sit down and read the paper. Rubenstein’s fussing around was masterfully understated, and he continued in his charismatic, as he interacted with the more obviously comic characters who followed: Paula, his good-natured but somewhat limited wife, brilliantly characterized by Becky Ann Baker; the flamboyant and totally phony Mrs. Pampinelli, played by Katherine McGrath, who went far beyond caricature; the “promptress” of the troupe, the terminally silly Mrs. Nelly Fell, played with a splendidly obnoxious voice by Andrea Martin in a characterization that was full of perceptive observations and color. We’ve all known women with that kind of voice and manner, and Ms. Martin is no exception, a fine student of human behavior. One of the joys of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, as a somewhat loose repertory company, is that in successive years or successive productions we get to see familiar actors in strikingly different roles. Kate Finneran’s recent parts in Beyond Therapy and Children have not been especially active, but, as Miss Florence McCrickett, she is constantly striking attitudes or dancing, and she brings all of this movement off very well. As the ingenue, carrying on a flirtation with Teddy Spearing (James Waterston), she is amusing without being especially appealing or endearing, as ingenues should be, but she and Teddy are just a bit too silly for us to extend much sympathy towards them, except perhaps poor Teddy, who becomes violently ill during the performance and runs out of the theatre under the totally useless Mr. Spindler (Yusef Bulos). We are glad to see Mr. Spindler leave, because he has been bumping into people and things throughout the evening. Philip Goodwin, who played Harry in Home last summer with exceptional subtlety of speech and movement, is Mr. Ralph Twiller, a gentleman who has little to say, but who takes great pains to move artfully about whatever space he happens to be in, always with grotesque, and potentially dangerous results. This role is almost purely visual, something between Charlie Chaplin and Mr. Bean. Edward Herrmann brings as much sophistication as he can to the bumbling of Mr. Huxley Hossefrosse. John Doherty made the most of the small and largely silent role of Mr. Stage Manager, who breaks his professional reserve to flirt with the recently widowed Mrs. Clara Sheppard, flamboyantly and most amusingly played by Jessica Hecht.

The impeccably timed shenanigans in the Act I rehearsal and the Act II performance degenerate rapidly into chaos, which in this day and age suggest the creations of Richard Foreman. But Kelly was no prophet. In Act III—at the WTF the second half of Act II—he ties things up. Mr. Ritter speaks his mind before Mrs. Pimpinelli, who is hiding behind a curtain, and Mrs. Ritter decides to give up the career on the stage Mrs. Pimpinelli has been urging on her. In the end, order is restored and the home his saved.

Many people in the audience laughed uncontrollably at every sight gag. For some reason I didn’t find them all that funny, but I still enjoyed the evening immensely. My vote for the funniest line is Mrs. Pampinelli’s sage advice to young Florence: “Now, you yourself, Florence darling, are an unmarried girl: — it is difficult for you to realize how excessively annoyed with her husband a married woman can be.”

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