What do you get when a novice director tries to put seasoned veterans through their paces in a purposely repetitive community theater comedy?
That’s not a setup for a joke. In the case of the First String Players’ current attraction, “Play On!,” what you get is a laugh-filled afternoon or evening in the theater.
At last Sunday’s matinee, the second show in a run that will conclude this weekend, it was appropriate that the audience was composed largely of local theater folks. That added to the fun of the show, a little-known venture by Rick Abbot about community theater actors staging a new murder mystery.
Think of it as life imitating art imitating life, except things went far more smoothly for the actors in this production than they do for the hapless cast in the play-within-the-play.
All the recognizable types are on hand: the diva, the ingenue, the juvenile, the overworked stage manager, the harried director and, adding to the mounting near-opening problems for “Murder Most Foul,” the ditzy playwright herself, armed with constant last-minute rewrites.
The time is the present. From the moment the curtain parts (as it does frequently, nearly every time the director asks his cast to take it from the top), the audience is privy to the goings-on in the production of a play.
Anyone who has ever performed in theater will recognize the tell-tale signs of imminent disaster; so, too, would anyone with half a brain: a cast that can’t get through more than a minute or two of a scene without someone messing up; a set that isn’t nearly finished; wigs that don’t fit; a sound technician who keeps missing his cues.
Undertaking his first directorial assignment, Steve Morisi is to be congratulated for assembling a fine cast, most of whom must play dual roles, and eliciting knowing performances from all concerned. The cast of 10 takes the business of making an audience laugh quite seriously. It’s not easy to act badly on purpose, but several members of this company succeed beautifully at overacting in the play-within-the -play.
In an unusual twist, two of the roles, conceived as female, are here played by men. One, Rich Weyhausen, a familiar face around these parts and a Queens Chronicle employee, plays the no-nonsense director, who serves as the straight man amid a group of disparate individuals.
Nearly stealing the show is his frequent costar, Nick DeCesare, who plays an amateur actor playing the very smug Lord Dudley, who is rarely if ever found without a cigarette dangling from its foot-long holder. DeCesare’s acerbic delivery and malleable facial expressions are delightful.
Two other veteran performers have a field day with their respective roles: Mary Lynch, who plays DeCesare’s increasingly impatient diva of a wife, and Fred Kaminski, whose wisecracking character brings to life a villainous man of science. Kaminski makes a convincing drunk and proves adept at physical stage business.
Stef Morisi scores laughs aplenty as an actress whose tongue trips frequently over her words, particularly when dealing with the many line changes she is handed. Andrew Benjamin, a late addition to the cast (and a Chronicle contributor), fits in seamlessly and proves game as the requisite juvenile actor.
Katira Campos fills the bill as a young actress who not only has to leave rehearsal by a certain time because of a biology test in school the next day but who seems incapable of making an entrance on cue.
Michelle Ricciardi employs a Betty Boop voice as the stage manager who’s in over her head; while Liam MacLarty, his head topped with a crop of impossibly curly hair, has good timing as the stage technician with bad timing, in the second case of gender-blind casting; and Hayley Adkisson, all gangly arms and legs, is just over-the-top enough as the playwright.
There are many funny elements in the production, including the playwright’s final costume, which earns laughs all its own.
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 17; 2 p.m. Aug 18
Where: Our Lady of Mercy, 70-01 Kessel St., Forest Hills (Juno St. entrance)
Tickets: $10. (718) 268-6143