Jeeves on Sunset Boulevard

The exclamation point in the title of this comedy is a good indicator of what's to come: strong emphasis delivered to otherwise pale material. The sparkling dynamism—perfectly executed exclamation points—of Gerrianne Raphael's performance as Gloria Desmond infuses an atmosphere of excitement into the formulaic plot, a mystery-comedy set in the 1930s. A mysterious stranger is invited to the elegant country home of aging film legend Gloria Desmond, where he encounters a lovely young countess, a substitute butler, and a priceless necklace. All the elements are in place for a Wodehousian adventure, and thanks to some strong performances, audiences won't be disappointed if like, this reviewer, they are devout P.G. Wodehouse fans. It's a great satisfaction to see a melodramatic doyenne like Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, "the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth" (Wodehouse), come to life on the stage. Raphael's Gloria Desmond spins even weak dialogue into gold; every pose and verbal flourish is on the mark.

While the other performers are at risk of being outshone by the radiance of Raphael's performance, Marnie Klar and Adam Raynen largely rise to the demands of their roles as the imposters Lady Fortescue and Alfred the Butler. Klar manages to be alternately goofy and elegant as the occasion demands, while Raynen offers a consistent performance as an amiable butler—overly consistent, because the dual identity of his character offers missed opportunities for a more complex portrayal of the butler's criminal side. Harold Busby (Davis Hall), the mysterious stranger, is comically creepy in wig and fake moustache, props that nearly steal the show in the final scenes.

Playwright Norman Beim also directed, and some of his decisions seem to stem from a desire to compensate for the flatness of his dialogue and story arc. Some of the play's best moments revolve around sound effects: a dinner gong followed by jolting sounds that cause the characters to flinch compulsively; a dramatic strain of music that accompanies each mention of the Mandarin Necklace. But even these moments are formulaic—funny because they are somehow familiar from television effects?—and when the chorus from Carmina Burana fills the theater, the last crutch is in place.

The high point of the script unfolds when the mysterious Harold Busby confronts the butler and Lady Fortescue about the Mandarin Necklace. A game of throw-and-catch—or one-sided fetch—ensues with an exchange of aliases between Busby and the butler: "Willy the Weasel?" "Louis the Louse." "Louis the Louse?" "Winnie the Pooh." Lady Fortescue throws one in, "Spot the dog."

This verbal give-and-take will be echoed by the physical comings and goings of the necklace in later scenes. A nice conceit, but somehow I felt, once again, a sense of déjà vu. The danger of relying too heavily on formula is that everything becomes fraught with cliché. Especially within the confines of such a recognizable vehicle as a screwball Sunset Boulevard.

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