Spokane Civic Theatre’s director Wes Deitrick, cast and crew try their best to add sparkle to Dale Wasserman’s lackluster satirical comedy “Premiere.”
This is not to say Wasserman wasn’t a phenomenal playwright. Before his death in 2008 at the age of 94, Wasserman wrote numerous scripts for film, television and theater. Most notably, he wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning 1966 musical, “Man of La Mancha” and created a 1963 stage adaption of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It’s just unfortunate that his final play is so underwhelming.
What constitutes an original piece of work is the most interesting topic addressed in “Premiere.” Using William Shakespeare as an example, the show poses the question: How can anything be truly authentic, as all works draw inspiration from previous ideas? The show also serves as a reflection of Wasserman’s own writing career and of his fellow writer friends, including Neil Simon. (It has been suggested that Wasserman modeled his central character, Gil Fryman, after the great comedic playwright).
The play is set primarily in the living room of professor Eli Brand’s (J.P. O’Shaughnessey) New York apartment. Brand’s son-in-law, Gil (Chris Taylor), is a successful playwright determined to prove he is capable of more than Broadway comedies. To show he can write more serious works, Gil devises a scheme, aided by his wife, Becky (Kristin McKernan). He will write Shakespeare’s “lost” play, “The Tragedy of Alcibiades,” pawn it off as the bard’s work and be revered by critics and Bardophiles everywhere.
For a general audience, the premise is hardly relatable, making much of the show’s comedy trite.
There are a number of unnecessary monologues, and the deliveries of some seem forced and off rhythm. But for the most part, the talented cast works hard to keep things lively. Taylor’s portrayal of on-edge, ambitious Gil is engaging, and O’Shaughnessey plays an endearing voice of reason as mild-mannered Brand.
Standouts of the show are Lauralynn “Lulu” Stafford and Andrew Biviano. Stafford is intimidating as the eccentric and potentially vicious Brit, professor Justina Hawkins. And Biviano is convincing as slickster Lefty Guggenheim. With his tough-guy New York accent and slightly meek physical appearance, he’s an interesting cross between John Leguizamo and Steve Buscemi. Humorously, both characters serve as foremost experts in their professions – for Hawkins it’s Shakespeare, for Guggenheim forgery.
As with numerous Civic productions, set and lighting designer David Baker offers a well-balanced and inviting set within the more intimate space of the studio theater. Victorian furniture and old leather-bound books scattered here and there create the scholarly ambience of Brand’s “Masterpiece Theater”-like living room.
What made Wasserman’s “Man of La Mancha” and many of his other works so successful were their ability to dive into deeper human truths. Sadly, the themes of “Premiere” only wade at the surface.