British playwright J. B. Priestley is best known for An Inspector Calls, his 1945 play that Stephen Daldry revived in a revelatory production in 1992 in London and in 1994 on Broadway. There followed for the neglected Priestley occasional Off-Broadway revivals of his works: in New York, Dangerous Corner in 1995, and Time and the Conways in 2002, both serious dramas, and The Glass Cage, a splendid family play set in Canada, presented by the Mint Theater in 2008.
But The Roundabout, the Cahoots Theatre Company’s ambitious and well-acted production of a virtually unknown comedy, doesn’t have the pedigree of the others, and it shows. Penned in 1931 for Peggy Ashcroft but shelved without a production, it dates from the interwar years and the heyday of drawing-room hijinks. It was only presented in Liverpool during the Christmas season of 1932. Not until 2016 did London finally see it. The Cahoots production is the American premiere.
The Roundabout is almost an avatar of the kind of drawing-room comedy that John Osborne and Arnold Wesker were assailing as they introduced working-class “kitchen sink” drama to the British theater in the 1950s. (Ironically, The Glass Cage in 1957 was Priestley’s retort to the Angry Young Men, to show that the still vigorous dramatist could deal with generational conflict as complexly as they.)
The setting is the country house of Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), a member of the landed but not idle gentry who has several business dealings; they are failing and he soon may be bankrupt. Visiting the estate for the weekend is his old chum, the witty and effete (by his own admission) Churton Saunders—the names are early indicators of the high comic style, with a Farrington Gurney and a Lady Knightsbridge shortly to come.
Kettlewell has been separated from his wife and daughter, Pamela, for a decade, and has no expectation of seeing them. No sooner is that point made than, of course, Pamela shows up, dragging along a Comrade Staggles. Both British, they have been in Soviet Russia and have been converted to Communism. The remainder of the play is a comedy of discomfort, an amalgam of brittle wit worthy of Noel Coward, Shavian social commentary, a dollop of Robert E. Sherwood’s Tovarich, and, unfortunately, some dreary and dated passages.
In addition to his returned family, Kettlewell has to deal with Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey), a go-getting dowager also scant of money; his personal secretary Gurney (a blond and strapping Charlie Field); and the predatory Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks), who has marital designs on him.
Most crucial is Saunders, aka “Chuffy,” whose bons mots provide much of the high comedy. “You’re always jumping to conclusions,” Kettlewell admonishes him, to which Chuffy replies, “It’s the only exercise I get.” Hugh Sachs is a delight in the role, but even he is handed some dreadful lines, including one about iced consommé that only points up a frequent archness in the dialogue. But Priestley at his best is also detectable. A line of Chuffy’s about young women who write with “thickets of exclamation marks” travels well across the decades. And the butler’s response to Staggles’ announcement that he’s a Communist is dry and witty: “Communism’s all right for a young gentleman like yourself, but you’ll get over it.”
Steven Blakeley’s Staggles, the militant—and oversexed—anti-capitalist will, of course, be drinking brandy by the end of the play, even if he’s immediately intent on rousing the servants to rebellion. Happily, Blakeley provides some snap to a character that’s too obviously drawn.
Under the direction of Hugh Ross, the actors deliver cut-glass diction and high style; it’s the play itself that frequently betrays their efforts. As soon as Lady Knightsbridge, having heard about Pamela (Emily Laing) arriving in men’s clothes, announces that “I’m looking forward to seeing her in trousers,” you can lay odds that Pamela will enter in a ladylike smock. (Costumer Polly Sullivan pushes a bit too hard for a laugh in the set-up. Pamela initially looks like a refugee from Newsies, with one leg of her shorts inexplicably rolled up—but her dress shows that appearances do matter to her.)
Unfortunately, Pamela is the center of the action, yet her character is often irritating, and Laing doesn’t make her as palatable as she needs to be. Priestley’s ending is also awkward: a tacked-on, quasi–deus ex machina, scarcely prepared for, but typical of the oddities of the play.
The Roundabout—a British term for a merry-go-round—is no lost diamond, but it’s more than a lump of anthracite. For fans of Priestley or drawing-room comedy, there are charms. Too often, though, one wishes it were that missing diamond.
The Cahoots Theatre Company production, in association with the Other Cheek and Park Theatre, of The Roundabout runs at 59E59 Theatres (between Park and Madison) through May 28 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call (212) 279-4200 or visit britsoffbroadway.com.