J. B. Priestley's Rediscovered "The Roundabout" a Must-See, "Marry Harry," a Musical Less So, Randy Sharp's "Dead End" Revival Not at All

Here’s great news. A forgotten J. B. Priestley play has just resurfaced. It’s The Roundabout, and it hasn’t been seen since its 1931 London premiere. It’s never seen this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Priestley, the poet of theatrical time, has just had time play a wonderful trick on him.

Here’s even greater news. The Roundabout is revived at 59E59 Theatres in a grand production, directed exactly as it should be by Hugh Ross and with precisely the right cast.

Those who know Priestley adore his plays because he got into the habit of incorporating a gimmick while always transcending the gimmick-y. Which isn’t the case with this one, written in the same year—1931—that his first play, Dangerous Corners, was introduced.

Priestley was 35 at the time and a neophyte who hadn’t yet entirely found his stage voice. So The Roundabout is a drawing room comedy not unlike others from the period. Nevertheless, in its way it was already accomplished, and in its way it’s now dated. Dated, yes, but possessing the kind of charm those plays continue to hold, rather like the perfume of faded flowers.

Yet, The Roundabout also has a very special humor about it, having to do with two of the characters invading the 1930’s English-drawing-room politesse. The interlopers are Pamela Kettlewell (Emily Laing, as good-looking a farceuse as you’d hope to find) and Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley), who’ve just returned from Russia and have become dyed-in-the-wool Communists.

The trouble is that the dye in that wool is still drying as Pamela returns to the family country home with the intention of irritating her estranged father, Lord Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe). The trouble doubles back to her, however, as the days she returns don’t quite develop as she’s planned.

Aside from Comrade Staggles getting on everyone’s last nerve with his trumped-up iconoclasm, Pamela is thwarted by having invited her mother, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman), who lives separately from Lord Kettlewell, to join the floundering festivities. Pamela’s old beau, Alec Grenside (Ed Pinker), also drops by to enhance the amusing retinue.

The true value of The Roundabout is that it’s Priestley getting laughs at the expense of the upstart English who’ve jumped on the Communist bandwagon. To some very large extent, he’s defanging the bear-toothed threat of the age, a threat he might have taken more seriously. But if he had, The Roundabout wouldn’t be half the fun it is, and that excuses plenty.

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The old adage “short and sweet” certainly applies to Marry Harry, the new musical that Jennifer Robbins (book), Dan Martin (music) and Michael Biello (lyrics) have delivered to the York as if it were an economy-sized box of bonbons.

Truth to tell, this tale of Sherri (Morgan Cowling), a rich, just-jilted fiancée, and East Village cook Little Harry (David Spadora) who get engaged after a single harmonious night’s frolic couldn’t be much sweeter than it is without requiring insulin shots.

So being sweeter, no, but it could be somewhat longer. As it is, Marry Harry is a one-act that would benefit from filling in the audience on who Sherri is and how her relationship with her controlling mother, Francine (Robin Skye) stands. It could benefit even more from going a bit further into Little Harry’s dreams of leaving the restaurant owned and operated by his father, Big Harry (Lenny Wolpe).

At present, the 80-minute interaction between and among the above four is bolstered by a trio of troubadours (Ben Chavez, Jesse Manocherian, Claire Saunders) who sometimes pop out to narrate and sometimes merge to back up various routines—but again, ever so sweetly. That’s when the giddy three aren’t capering over the line to ever so cloyingly.

Certainly, Biello could do some work on the lyrics, which from time to time count for charm too much on things like la-las. Even they can sound as if they’re benefitting from the lyric equivalent of hamburger helper.

On York Theatre Company producing director James Morgan’s appealingly cartoon set, Bill Castellino directed and choreographs well, if occasionally excessively. He definitely gets lovely performances from Spadora and Cowling. Their falling for each other so quickly works as well as it does because they’ve so rapidly encouraged patrons to fall for them. The supporting players—including the back-up contingent regularly changing the Tyler M. Holland costumes—are assets in a promising but as yet unfinished work about young love.

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Deconstruction in theater can be a con. Indeed, if you take the “con” out of deconstruction, you’re left with “destruction.” And, sorry to say, it’s hard to ignore that destruction is the result of the Axis Company’s revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End.

For this dismaying result, director Randy Sharp must be accept full blame. The tough portrait of the Upper East Side locale, where in 1935 the rich and poor found themselves living cheek by jowl, hasn’t had a Broadway revival since it originally bowed. Back in that day the melodrama called slice-of-life attention to the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

This is a discrepancy that exists today, of course, and, despite some of Kingsley’s now dated aspects, might have called for a straightforward resuscitation. Sharp, however, doesn’t want this. Instead, he dispatches his actors into an entirely black space featuring a few large black cylinders to on side. The walls of the Chad Yarborough’s are bricks painted black.

When not involved with dialogue, most of the cast members circulate in slow-motion helter-skelter. Those not shuffling about under David Zeffren’s shadowy lights but perching instead atop the bulky cylinders are what we know now as the Dead End kids. (They were originally played by Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop, Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell, who lengthened their careers as the movies’ Bowery Boys.)

This time, a few of those delinquent boys are played by girls—girls who have been asked to exaggerate Manhattan’s dese, dem and dose proclivities. Their performances are a crying shame. Not only that, but these members, as do all cast members, have pink circles on their cheeks, giving the impression Sharp wants all Dead End denizens to be viewed as clowns.

Why? Beats me, but only Katie Rose Summerfield playing a prostitute afflicted with syphilis would likely walk around with rouged cheeks—and she gives the production’s only honest performance.

Perhaps the problem is that director Sharp misunderstood Kingsley’s intentions with Dead End. Surely, the playwright didn’t want to present what Sharp has presented: a theatrical dead end.

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