StageSceneLA: OPENING NIGHT is “first-rate crowd-pleasing fun”

Opening Night mayhem at a second-rate Canadian theater makes for first-rate crowd-pleasing fun as Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 presents the West Coast premiere of Norm Foster’s hilarious—and surprisingly touching—Opening Night.

Alternating between the “VIP Lounge” of the unfortunately named Piggery Theatre and onstage inside where a potboiler entitled Whisper On The Wind is about to become the shortest play in Canadian theatrical history, Opening Night introduces us to:

Ruth and Jack Tisdale (Gail Johnston and John Combs), celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary with Jack’s very first night at the theater, though he’d much rather be home watching the Toronto Blue Jays compete for the 1992 World Series championship. Ruth, meanwhile, can’t help hoping that a night out with the hubby will either rekindle their one-time romantic flame or help the mother of two grown daughters get over a pesky case of empty-nest syndrome or both.

Whisper On The Wind director Richard Hyde-Finch (Martin Thompson), whose ladylove Cilla Fraser (Meranda Walden) is feeling particularly frustrated with their relationship on this night of all nights—when her longtime lover’s attentions seem anywhere but on her. Michael Craig (Richard Hoyt Miller), a down-on-his- luck stage-and-screen vet whose latest role on the road to failure is that of socket wrench Handy Randy on commercials for Handy Hardware, and aspiring young thespian Tom Delaney (Eric Keitel), cater-waitering champagne and hors d’oeuvres to tonight’s assorted guests in the hope that one of them will give him his first professional acting gig. Aging British actor Clayton Fry (David Hunt Stafford) and nubile theatrical newbie Libby Husniak (Ilona Kulinska), starring tonight as a sweaty pair of country bumpkins in Whisper On The Wind, a play that could easily sink a theater even on an Opening Night in which all goes according to schedule, let alone one where anything that can go wrong does.

Theatre 40 regulars will recall playwright Foster from last year’s hilarious, cleverly written The Long Weekend. Canada’s most produced playwright (with an average of 150 productions a year), Foster knows how to find humor in everyday lives, even if “everyday” for his characters means The Long Weekend’s pair of spouse-swapping couples or Opening Night’s cast of back-stabbing thespians.

Anyone who’s ever acted, directed, or been otherwise involved in putting on a show will find much to identify with in Opening Night, from Clayton’s “warm-up exercises” to TV fans who know actors only as the characters they’ve played (“You’re Handy Andy, the socket wrench, right?) to to being told that “you were up there on the short list but we decided to go in another direction with the role.”

Then there’s the play within the play, a turgid old chestnut whose bosomy, pigtailed country gal of a heroine complains about “sweatin’ first thing in the mornin’, sweatin’ through lunch, sweatin’ through the scorch of the afternoon, sweatin’ through dinnertime, even sweatin’ in your bed when the sun ain’t nowheres to be found. Sweatin’, sweatin’, sweatin’,” even as her Southern-born-and-raised “Ol’ Daddy” spends year after year “choppin’ and cuttin’ and cuttin’ and choppin’” … and soundin’ like someone from South London if he’s from South anywhere. And if this weren’t already godawful enough, the poor Polish-American actress assigned to play “Missy Gal” starts going up on her very first line, after which things can only go downhill at a record-breaking pace.

Meanwhile, Ruth’s marital frustrations with Jack, and Cilla’s inability to get any sort of real commitment (let alone a wedding proposal) from Richard, give the actors playing these couples considerable true-to-life “meat” to chew on.

All of which means that between some very deliberate scenery chewing by the cast of Whisper On The Wind and some authentic, heartfelt performances by the actors playing Opening Night’s two pairs of mismatched lovers, Theatre 40’s latest offers some of the sharpest comedic and “dramedic” acting in town under the savvy direction of Bruce Gray.

From Thompson’s pompous, sophisticated Richard to Walden’s elegant, frustrated Cilla to Combs’ folksy, fumbling Jack, performances on the Theatre 40 stage are all-around finely-tuned gems. Attractive young newcomers Keitel and Kulinska make their charming, charismatic mark too, as do longtime T40s vets Stafford, a hoot and a half as Ol’ Vic-ready Clayton, and Miller, funny and fabulous as frustrated “has-been” (make that “never-was”) Michael.

Doing the richest work of all may be Johnston, who as in last year’s Laura, evokes classic Hollywood character actresses Shirley Booth, Thelma Ritter, and Mildred Dunnock in her finely-hewn portrait of a disillusioned wife unwilling to give up on hope…at least not just yet.

Jeff J. Rack’s ingenious set design morphs from the Piggery’s decidedly un-V.I.P.-ready lounge to Whisper On The Wind’s cheesy farmyard set to the Piggery’s graffiti-covered stage door. Ric Zimmerman lights with his accustomed finesse, while Bill Frogatt once again contributes a pitch-perfect sound design. Best of the design bunch are Michèle Young’s character-perfect early ‘90s costumes.

Opening Night is produced by Theatre 40 artistic/managing director Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager. You don’t have to be a theater person to enjoy Opening Night, though anyone with stage experience on either side of the fourth wall will get a special kick out of Theatre 40’s latest, Norm Foster’s delightful, affectionate valentine to life upon the wicked stage.