After months of delays and false starts, Friday night the Village Repertory Co. opened its first season in its new downtown digs, the Woolfe Street Playhouse. The building, which was originally a meatpacking warehouse, has been under renovations for the past year and a half or so, and is still very much a work in progress. When you approach it, it’s difficult to tell where exactly to enter, and I had to be directed to the front doors. The large lobby appears to be the most finished part of the building, and has lovely windows, large wooden doors, and makes the most of the distressed brick walls that are one of the building’s best features. One hopes that this space is an indicator of the potential latent in the rest of the theater, though it’s a sure bet that unlocking that potential will take tons of work and money.
The theater space itself still feels much like what it was designed to be — a warehouse — but that could be due in part to the current lack of a stage. The Playhouse staff has been working on incredibly tight deadlines, and as co-founder Keely Enright said before the show began, they had time to build either a set or a stage, and they chose the sets. Enright and co-founder Dave Reinwald have kept the table seating of the original Village Playhouse, but the cabaret feel isn’t quite there yet. The space just feels too cavernous. One other challenge is keeping the place warm; warehouses aren’t known for their insulation, and I heard several patrons complaining throughout the night of being cold.
The play that the Village Rep chose as its season opener, The Man Who Came to Dinner, dates to 1939 and is the story of a critic and radio wit, Sheridan Whiteside, who finds himself confined to the home of an Ohio family after he slips and injures his hip. While recuperating, he takes over the family’s home and installs himself in their living room, where he welcomes guests from all over the world, makes dozens of trans-Atlantic phone calls, and records his radio addresses. He is assisted by his down-to-earth secretary Maggie Cutler, who ends up falling in love with a local newspaperman and whom Whiteside cannot stand the idea of losing.
The set, meant to evoke the Stanleys’ Midwestern home, was impressive, especially for being built in 24 hours. The late 1930s-early 1940s costumes, complete with glamorous hairstyles for the female cast members, were especially exceptional. When it came to the acting, the large cast was generally very good, with standouts in Nat Jones as Whiteside and Liz Duren as Cutler. These roles require strong chemistry, as Whiteside is almost totally dependent on his secretary of 10 years, and she is one of the few people who can stand up to him. Jones pulls off the ascerbic, smoking-jacketed Whiteside with aplomb, keeping him just on the right side of likeable. Duren, too, seems quite comfortable with the play’s screwball comedy style, pulling off dated phrases like “you old so-and-so” with ease.
Unfortunately, this production does not have the quick pacing that a screwball comedy needs to keep an audience captivated. The play comes in just around two-and-a-half hours, with two seven-minute intermissions that make it seem even longer. Most of the action really picks up in the second act, and once it arrived, I felt almost as though the first act could have been skipped — or at least, greatly condensed. I had to wonder whether it was the best choice to open the first season in the new space.
One other stumbling block for contemporary audiences is the 1930s and ’40s-era name-dropping, which makes up a substantial amount of The Man Who Came to Dinner’s humor. Here, too, quicker pacing could have helped keep things from stagnating.
Considering the challenges the Village Rep has faced in getting the Woolfe Street Playhouse operational and open to the public, opening night could certainly be called a success. But it will be interesting to see what a completed theater and definite performance dates do to improve ensuing productions.