Us and Them

If there were no world outside their stately home, the Birlings would have it made. Arthur, the patriarch and former Lord Mayor of Brumley, England, might be up for knighthood. His daughter, Sheila, is engaged to Gerald Croft (son of Sir George, of Crofts Ltd., Arthur’s biggest competitor). It’s a match made in economic Valhalla. To celebrate, the family, including Arthur’s wife Sybil and tipsy son Eric, don tuxes and flowing silk dresses and dine in elegance. They share one of life’s “ah, yes” moments — care for a cigar? A smidge of port? — interrupted by a clap of thunder and a banging on the door.

No Birling, it turns out, is an island.

An inspector arrives, unkempt of hair and beard, layers of tweed under a frumpy overcoat. A young working-class woman named Eva Smith, he says, committed suicide.

J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls raises two initial questions: whodunit, and why has the inspector, named Goole (pronounced “ghoul”), come to the Birlings? Arthur just gave an impassioned speech about being responsible only to oneself and the masses be damned (“If you don’t come down strongly on these people, they’ll be asking for the earth”). What connection could the social elite have with a dirt-poor woman?

For Lamb’s Players Theatre, Mike Buckley’s stylish, Edwardian set requires a double-take. Stuffed animal trophies hang on deep-rose–colored walls. The furnishings bespeak refinement. But the floor — is that dirt? Impeccably polished shoes create heel-prints where a marble surface, like that checkerboard style in the foyer, would leave no trace.

The contrast between the décor and the clay underneath grows as the evening progresses. The inspector — and just who IS this guy? A Sherlock Holmes of the conscience? — retraces the family’s tracks in search of the culprit. “We don’t live alone,” he says with moral fervor. “We are members of one body.”

As played by Robert Smyth, Goole’s a cross between a bumbling Lt. Columbo and an avenging angel. Part of the mystery points to the inspector’s agenda, since he rambles from one person to the next. But Smyth subtly suggests that he knows exactly where he’s headed. As does costume designer Jeanne Reith, who has the tweedy earth tones of the inspector’s outfit blend with the dusty floor.

Smyth and wife Deborah Gilmour codirected this taut, trimmed (from three acts to 90 minutes) staging. The strong ensemble cast almost tells the story with their eyes alone. Sudden flashes of recognition, or entrapment, penetrate serene façades. These aren’t melodramatic asides or bug-eyed swoons: just looks reflecting a fear that things aren’t what they seem — and never were.

One of Priestly’s themes: people must act with consideration for others. As in life, so in theater. The night I caught Lamb’s thought-provoking show, two people in the back row would NOT stop talking. As entitled as Arthur Birling, they commented on everything. When irate members of the audience turned and stared, or raised an index finger from lips to nose and said “shush,” the pair just kept gabbing. They became Exhibit A of Priestly’s point about not taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Down the street from Lamb’s, the Coronado Playhouse urges its audience for The Wild Party to yell, guffaw, and “be impolite.” The strategy works. Based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (1926), the musical portrays an all-night, late Jazz Age bash. As they fall in and out of love, the guests swill bathtub gin, dance, shout, and frolic unabated. Spontaneous feedback from the house seats adds to the revelry.

The evening’s motto: “If in heaven you don’t excel/ You can always party down in hell.”

Queenie, a vaudeville dancer and platinum blonde Jean Harlow look-alike, falls for Burrs, a clown. After three years of his abuse, she decides to throw a party and put him “on the rack” by whatever means necessary. The story becomes a cautionary “watch out what you wish for” tale.

Andrew Lippa wrote the book, music, and lyrics. Many of the edgy songs recall the late, pre-Depression 1920s: a sense of foreboding lingers in their frenzy. A persistent problem with the book and music, however: Lippa gives everyone a tune, but many don’t fit the moment. Set pieces halt the party’s manic pace. The show stops and then must restart.

The Coronado production, smartly directed by David Kelso and choreographed by Jennifer Rubio, hits inevitable lulls but makes up for them with an infectious spunk and strong individual performances. As Queenie (who changes, improbably, from full-bore decadent to lost waif), Chrissy Burns belts songs and dances with flapper-era verve. Eric Vest is first-rate as Burrs, who suffers a complete comeuppance. Kerianne Rice’s always-impressive Kate opens Act 2 with “The Life of the Party” and performs like a one-person band (her vocal range leaps from whispering woodwinds to brassy trombones). Though of varying talents, the supporting cast holds nothing in reserve, and in songs like “Raise the Roof,” they do exactly that.

An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth; cast: Jon Lorenz, Jillian Frost, Colleen Kollar Smith, Glynn Bedington, David Cochran Heath, Lance Arthur Smith, Robert Smyth; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound design, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Patrick Duffy
Playing through March 21; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.

The Wild Party, music, book, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Coronado Playhouse, 1835 Strand Way, Coronado
Directed by David Kelso; cast: Chrissy Burns, Rickey Calixto, Betsy Clevenstine, Brett Daniels, Rocky DeHaro, Judson Harmon, Jeri Harms, Tiffany Loui, Dustin Maxwell, Kerianne Rice, Anthony Simone, Jessica Stamper, Billy Stevens, Kendra Truett, Eric Vest; scenic design, Chris Johnson; costumes, Brett Daniels, Keith Bonar; lighting, Kevin Fipps; sound, Kelly Prow; musical director, Korrie Paliotto
Playing through March 6; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-435-4856.

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