By Philip Pearce
I REALLY WANTED TO LIKE The Boondawgle Estate. It’s a farce that has just opened at The Western Stage, a company responsible for The Arsonists and The Liar, two of the best local comedy productions of the past five years. The cast includes six actors who’ve been giving outstanding stage performances for as long as I’ve been watching Monterey Peninsula theatre.
There’s the effervescent Pat Horsley (Nice Work if You Can Get It, Woody Guthrie) and the incisive Suzanne Sturn (The Clean House, The Cherry Orchard, All My Sons). With them are Mindy Pedlar (The Sound of Music at Western Stage and the superb Santa Cruz Seetheatre’s 1915 Copenhagen). There’s Anna Schumacher (a memorable Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret), Dale Thompson (a brilliant Curly in MPC’s recent Oklahoma!) and Bill Wolak (magnificent as the tragic Frank in A Song for My Father). These regulars are joined by three younger newcomers, Thomas Perry, Isabel Cruz and Peter Ray Juarez, who show purpose, energy and skill as farceurs.
With all that talent at work throughout the evening, what’s lacking? The answer, I’m afraid, is a good script.
For a play that had its first performance only last year in Santa Barbara, The Boondawgle Estate is a curiously old-fashioned product. It begins with a lengthy conversation between Perry and Cruz setting up the eccentric events to come and telling the audience facts they need to know before they meet the eccentric people who are going to initiate and carry out those events. It’s a lot of info to take on board and it isn’t helped by the fact that Perry, though physically and emotionally adept, sometimes speaks too quickly and too softly to be easily understood.
Program notes say playwright Peter McDonough loves cinema comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and his stage and cinema borrowings abound in Boondawgle. As in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) a literary hero and his lady love have to cope with some screwball maiden aunts. Cary Grant had only two, Entrance Overhill (Perry) has three, and unlike Arsenic’s pair of sweety-pie poisoners, Boondawgle’s Aunties Gertrude (Horsley), Edna (Sturn) and Mabel (Schumacher) are a sharp-clawed trio of self-willed middle class alleycats. As in Charley’s Aunt (1941), MacDonough finds a reason to have a main character (in his case Juarez as Entrance’s brother Exit) prance around in drag for a portion of the action. As in I Hate Hamlet (1991) the setting is a mansion once occupied by an important recently deceased character. Unlike John Barrymore, family patriarch Edward Boondawgle, MD never materializes permanently; he only glowers from occasional holograph wall images and from an irritable portrait which is like the patriarchal painting that features prominently in The Cat and the Canary (1944). As in that Bob Hope hit, the plot of The Boondawgle Estate centers in efforts to uncover the secret of which member or members of the family the old man has left his fortune to.
It’s fun sniffing out the old movie homages, but each of the stage and screen comedies McDonough selects to borrow from starts from an overriding plot mechanism and sticks doggedly to it right to the end of the movie, Jack and Charley must provide and maintain a fake lady chaperone in order to woo Kitty and Amy, Paul and Annabel must try different ploys to solve the mystery of the eyes which keep menacing Annabel through a spooky portrait of her dead uncle, and Mortimer must decide what to do with a dozen corpses buried by his maiden aunts in their Brooklyn cellar. Boondawgle also starts from a far-fetched but controlling plot idea involving a search for hidden documents and a safe deposit key. But where the funny stuff that happens in his depression year models are logical results of the controlling ideas, Boondawgle trots out comedy sequences arbitrarily, like entre-act olio skits unrelated to the central story.
And they aren’t, at least in the eyes of one jaded audience member, as funny as the originals. Stuck-up fashion conscious Aunt Edna arouses scandal by putting on a pair of trousers, a decision that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in movie comedies as early as Theodora Goes Wild (1937). Aunt Mabel has a dual personality that lurches between Little Merry Sunshine and Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein. At one point, she leads a group rendition of a tweet-tweet-tweet nursery song, an arbitrary decision that raises some laughter but has nothing to do with the search for the missing will.
Another unrelated joke involves Jaurez, as Entrance’s histrionic and hypochondriac brother Exit, drinking what turns out to be a bottle of urine. Anyway, Juarez plays the role with an over-the-top assurance that’s impressive, unless you harbor any gay pride indignation at the script’s merry explosions of homophobia.
An actually funny though equally irrelevant piece of foolery is the fate of crosspatch Auntie Gertrude. She gets knocked cold by events I won’t try to describe or justify. Juarez and Perry then manage to keep staggering past other characters who, just by a hair, keep missing the fact that the brothers are lugging Horsley’s unconscious body to hiding places elsewhere in the house. Jeff McGrath’s direction skillfully handles these shifts and turns of action. I just wish he had better written material to deal with.
The Boondawgle Estate plays weekends through October 8th. If you go, you’ll see hard working effort by a good cast. It took quite a while, but there was laughter on opening night, so you might dismiss my words and give it a try.
Photo by Richard Green