PLEASANT GROVE — When I was in college, one of my theatre professors asked my class why, in an era of an ever-increasing number of entertainment options, we as young people still attended live theatre, one of the oldest entertainment forms in the world. People mentioned the intellectual stimulation, the immediacy of being in the same room as the performers, and more. But one classmate gave a brutally honest answer. “I attend to see what goes wrong and how the actors handle it,” she said. She would have been pleased with Play On!, Rick Abbot’s play about the tumult and the crises that happen in community theatre productions.
In Play On!, a community theatre troupe is rehearsing Murder Most Foul, a fictional play written by Phyl Montague (played by Dennis Purdie). Phyl constantly makes changes to the script, including adding and deleting scenes and rewriting entire subplots. This frustrates the director and performers, who have to open the play in four days. To add to the problems, the cast and crew are starting to get on each other’s nerves. After intermission, the audience sees opening night of Murder Most Foul, which includes all the hijinks and foul-ups that make community theatre what it is.
My favorite performances were from Chase Taylor and Julie Hauwiller, who played Saul Watson and Polly, respectively. Saul and Polly detest one another, and Saul rarely lets a moment pass without hurling a biting insult at Polly. As someone who has seen this type of relationship between performers backstage, I can promise readers that the feud felt real. The hilarity that Taylor’s delivery brought to the remarks only made me enjoy the relationship more. Hauwiller was delightful playing an inexperienced actress who always performed facing the audience and not her fellow actors. Polly’s stiff characterization was a wonderful exaggeration of the stiffness that many first-timers on the stage have.
I also enjoyed Purdie’s characterization of Phyl, the playwright. Within seconds of Purdie’s first entrance I could tell that Phyl was a difficult person to live with and that the director (played by Scott Healy) was very long-suffering in dealing with Phyl. Purdie’s characterizations made it very easy to laugh at the play, but he still found moments that made the character human, such as when the cast refuses to accept any more rewrites. Finally, Kara Henry was excellent as the teenaged actress Smitty, who stressed endlessly about her mother’s possible reactions to the play and the effect that the show was having on her grades.
On the other hand, whenever some of the actors would actually flub a line in Play On!, it would lessen the humor for the screw-ups in Murder Most Foul, because it made me have to figure out whether the mistakes were genuine or planned.
Play On!‘s real-life directors, Howard Little and Kathryn Little, helped keep the show maintain a brisk pace, which made its 1 hour, 45 minute running time fly by. The Littles also wisely provided a great contrast between the scenes in Murder Most Foul and the “real life” scenes within Play On! This helped me know when the characters were acting and when they were themselves, which is important to be able to follow the story. I also appreciated how the Littles gave the audience just enough information about the Murder Most Foul to tell the story happening around the play, but didn’t get hung up on the details. (And, by the way, I would hate Murder Most Foul if it were a real play.)
My biggest complaint about the show, though, is the script. Rick Abbot’s play has a remarkable number of similarities with the much more well-known backstage farce Noises Off!. Both plays are about the behind-the-scenes antics of producing a play and have three acts (with the first act being a late rehearsal and the last act being a performance of the fictional play that the audience watches). The director, stage manager, a dumb young actress, and a drunk male actor are all character types that appear in both shows. Noises Off! and Play On! also share some similarities in subplots and even an exclamation point in their titles. The resemblance is so striking that I heard two different conversations at intermission from people nearby who made the same observation. So, I was rather surprised when I learned that Play On! precedes Noises Off! by two years. But Noises Off! is a much better script, due to Abbot’s clunky exposition (such as the first conversation between the director and stage manager characters) and some of the subplots, which have little development and only a small payoff (like the romantic interest between Diana and Stephen).
Although I’ve seen a superior play based on the same premise, I have to admit that Pleasant Grove Players has an endearing production. The show is genuinely funny, and it is well directed, acted, and produced. (John Ellis‘s set is better than the majority of amateur company sets in Utah, and the men’s costumes from Heidi Lynn Cochran in Murder Most Foul were elegant and stylish.) This play is a love letter to community theatre, and because it is performed by an amateur group, the sentiments behind the show are sweet and sincere.