Vanity, pettiness, egocentrism — these foibles make rich fodder for developing delightfully flawed literary characters. And playwrights don’t have to look beyond the footlights for inspiration. Actors love mirrors, and thus enjoy a humorous script reflecting and exaggerating their potential for pomposity. The perfect vehicle is a backstage farce that portrays the comic mayhem of mounting a production. It allows performers to parody themselves by playing hammy archetypes: Think master thespians from the Jon Lovitz school of “acting-schmacting.”
Daniel Sullivan’s 1992 play Inspecting Carol satirizes a struggling contemporary regional theater company with a fresh spin on the behind-the-scenes genre. The script starts with a creative cocktail of two 19th-century classics: Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General (1842) and Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol” (1843). Sullivan blends in modern neuroses and predicaments to brew a foamy work of folly. In the deft hands of Director Mark Nash, Vermont Stage Company’s ensemble of energetic comedic actors turned in a fast-paced, entertaining evening of theater.
In fact, this is not a show I’d like to see attempted by a less-skilled group — say, the Soapbox Playhouse Theater troupe portrayed in Inspecting Carol. The supposed pros are taking only four days to rehearse their holiday presentation of A Christmas Carol, the annual moneymaker of their season schedule. After 14 years, many aspects of the production have grown as gamey as the unlaundered costumes.
Distracted director Zorah (Lili Gamache) fails to address issues such as the burgeoning size of the child playing Tiny Tim (Tom Condon). The 12-year-old, Hershey’s Kisses-loving kid is getting too hefty for Bob Cratchit to bench press onto his shoulders. Most of the company’s actors drag around their emotional baggage like Jacob Marley’s chains, focusing more on backstage dramas than onstage performances. Some want to amp up Dickens’ original by rewriting the story altogether.
Into this maelstrom of bickering and backbiting walk three newcomers. Neophyte business manager Kevin, who has been trying to balance the books and baby the balky computers, gingerly brings Zorah some bad news. A life-or-death visit from a National Endowment for the Arts grant inspector looms; without the federal dollars, the theater will have to shut down. Meanwhile, new cast member Walter, a black actor whom Zorah proudly touts as her first foray into “nontraditional” casting, feels woefully under-rehearsed. He’s also more than a little uncomfortable with the bizarre, smelly and culturally insensitive Ghost outfits he has to wear.
When wide-eyed Wayne Wellacre (Andrew Sellon) wanders in looking for a last-minute audition, Zorah and Kevin think he’s the NEA inspector incognito. Since the theater’s survival depends on getting the grant renewed, Zorah eagerly gives Wayne a part in Carol despite his cringe-worthy rendition of Richard III. When the cast members are told who he is, however, they bite their tongues and cater to Wayne’s every whim.
But is the man from Washington really The Man from Washington? Either way, when the curtain rises on Soapbox’s Carol, the Ghost of Theatrical Mishaps wreaks havoc on the production. The script is massacred, the set destroyed. Dickens must be spinning in his grave. And yet, because this is a comedy, the deus ex machina of Happy Endings is bound to arrive and resolve all, as if by a holiday miracle.
Sullivan is actually not a playwright by profession but a highly acclaimed Broadway director, with a fistful of Tony nominations (and one win, for Proof in 2001). He developed Inspecting Carol during his 16-year tenure as artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theater, in conjunction with its resident company of actors.
Gogol’s play provided the central plot device. In it, a provincial town rife with every manner of bribery and corruption tries to clean up its vodka-swilling act when a possible government inspector arrives from St. Petersburg. In the mid-19th century, graft and malfeasance permeated Tsarist Russia, and Gogol’s groundbreaking satire stirred up a political hornet’s nest.
Sullivan tackles a bit of a theatrical taboo himself by mercilessly skewering the beloved — and usually financially necessary — holiday tradition of staging the Dickens classic. Audiences want their hearts warmed every Christmas. Theater companies need their coffers filled. Hence, the hackneyed production is reborn every year.
Sullivan uses his intimate backstage knowledge well, and makes the potentially cynical stew tasty by cooking up deliciously overdrawn caricatures: dictatorial stage manager, nebbishy bookkeeper, egomaniacal star. The challenge for the actors is making the over-the-top roles feel real.
At the FlynnSpace, the entire VSC troupe did a stellar job forging characters who were meaty rather than cheesy — a credit to the actors’ talents, as well as to director Nash’s skill. The most successful portraits relied on nuance rather than broad comedic brush strokes. Jason Lorber was the best of an outstanding ensemble as the bow-tied, tongue-tied numbers dweeb Kevin. Lorber employed a brace of mannerisms to convey Kevin’s nervous reticence: frequent swallowing, pursed lips, tense shoulders and slightly strangled vocal tone. The results were devastatingly funny.
Andrew Sellon, who has become a mainstay lead actor in VSC productions, took Wayne through a hilarious series of transformations. The shy deer in the headlights became an eager beaver once on stage, but ultimately morphed into a Tasmanian devil who destroys everything in his path. It was a similar role to Sellon’s 2005 performance as Charlie in The Foreigner — and rendered just as brilliantly. The character’s initial self-effacing gestures and glances gave way to bold self-assertion, even arrogance.
Both Edgar L. Davis and Bob Nuner also turned in terrific performances. As Walter, Davis used ever-widening eyes and subtle facial reactions to show his character’s increasing incredulity at the circus he finds himself in. Not to mention the ridiculous costumes he finds himself in, such as The Ghost of Christmas Present as Liberace. Nuner played Phil, the show’s Bob Cratchit, who is physically bent out of shape from carrying the chunky Tiny Tim and psychologically twisted from a misbegotten one-night stand with Zorah. Nuner coiled Phil into a tense bundle of poorly suppressed rage, anxiety and jealousy. Phil’s emotions erupt as erratically as does his feigned back injury, and Nuner’s eyes flashed with the indignity of a man who can’t control anything in his life.
Production elements were strong across the board. The faded chocolate and oak-brown hues of Jeff Modereger’s dynamic set design conveyed the warm but worn environment of an aging theater. John Forbes lit the tight space effectively, as usual. Rachel Kurland’s costumes greatly enhanced the comedy — Marley’s copiously clanking chains, Scrooge’s girlish pageboy wig, and especially Walter’s series of embarrassing Ghost get-ups. Who knew you could get diapers that big?
Belly laughs upstaged concerns about believability. Why pick apart the logic of plot details when you’re laughing your ass off? On opening night, VSC’s Carol hummed along in glitch-free, mid-run form — professional and polished. The actors shared excellent comic timing and rendered their crazy characters with conviction.
If it seems too early even to think about the holidays, consider Inspecting Carol a tongue-in-cheek inoculation against the excess sentimentality of the season — sort of a Christmas flu shot. Your arm won’t hurt afterwards, but your sides might ache a bit from guffawing.
Inspecting Carol, directed by Mark Nash, produced by Vermont Stage Company. Flynn Space, Burlington, Wednesday through Saturday, October 24 to November 4, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays at 2 p.m. $31.50-23.