WEST VALLEY CITY — Hale Centre Theatre is much more than a theatre, it is a brand—a brand that is synonymous in Utah with crowd-pleasing musicals and comedies. That isn’t a criticism. The West Valley Hale artistic staff knows what their target audience wants, and they are experts at delivering it with quality and consistency. Naturally, this consistency also breeds some repetition because their particular niche in the market does place some constraints on what they produce. For example, since HCT’s inaugural season in 1985, over half their productions have been repeats (not counting the annual A Christmas Carol). More than fifty shows have been produced at least twice and, of those, excepting the Hale-written “vintage” catalog, only ten have been staged as many as three times. (One of these, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, has actually been produced four times, more than any other show at HCT.) This production of James Sherman’s Beau Jest pushes the number of three-peats to eleven.
A quick perusal of the titles on the thrice-produced list reveals a preference for upbeat, shenanigan-filled comedies involving fish-out-of-water scenarios or cases of mistaken identity—plays such as No Time for Sergeants, The Foreigner, Arsenic and Old Lace, and See How They Run. Beau Jest fits in very comfortably among such company, hitting many of the same thematic notes. Sarah Goldman (played by LizAnne Chapman), tired of her Jewish parents’ disapproval of her dating life, pays an actor, Bob Schroeder (Bryan Dayley), to pose as the perfect Jewish boyfriend, Dr. David Steinberg. Though “David” attends all family functions with Sarah, she uses the ruse to secretly continue her relationship with the obviously gentile Chris Kringle (Todd Michael Thompson) behind her family’s back. The title implies more than “fake boyfriend.” It also references the French expression beau geste, which connotes a well intended gesture gone awry; and, as in so many others of HCT’s famous comedies, this is a premise just asking for things to go wrong.
All this is to say that Hale Centre Theatre has built its brand on plays like Beau Jest. The play is so firmly in the Hale wheelhouse that it practically receives its mail there. It embodies everything that HCT’s largest demographic most appreciates by combining optimistic romantic comedy with lessons about overcoming generational differences to bring family closer together. In the program notes, director Eric R. Jensen even explicitly invites the audience to identify with the Goldmans, pointing out the similarities in family dynamics between the Jewish faith and “the dominant religion here in The State of Deseret.”
The play’s Jewishness is underscored by the onstage Seder celebrated before intermission, though I wondered if it also didn’t inspire the blue color scheme in Sarah’s apartment. HCT regulars will recognize Jennifer Taylor’s set template from Over the River and Through the Woods (though it was green in that play): two levels with a low wall between them, suspended coffered ceiling panels, an arched, built-in bookcase, and aged doorknobs. The overall effect suggests a 1920’s bungalow, despite the two-paneled Roman interior door leading to the bedroom (which feels more Wasatch Front McMansion in the foothills circa 2004).
The production is set near Chicago’s Lincoln Park in the early 1990s, complete with Kenny G., cordless phones, pleated pants, bodysuits, and pagers. Though I confess to knowing very little about interior decorating trends from that period, the set’s navy, powder blue, and teal palette was conspicuous enough to make me speculate that Sarah was a Charlotte Hornets fan—as incongruous as that would be in Chicago at the peak of the Jordan years. Nevertheless, in the aggregate, the atmosphere perfectly typified that hallowed romantic comedy trope of impossibly quaint and spacious real estate for a single young adult living in an upscale neighborhood of a major city (especially on a kindergarten teacher’s salary).
Beau Jest shares more than a set with Over the River and Through the Woods, as both plays feature the tension between immigrant parents and their assimilated children. It can be tempting for actors to lapse into caricature when portraying elderly members of an ethnic minority—especially in a comedy. Fortunately, Betsy West and Jerry Dunn, as Sarah’s parents Miriam and Abe, are careful to make their accents serve their characters rather than stand in for them. Dunn imbues Abe’s umbrage at being lied to with a sense of betrayal grounded in a lifetime of experience. Ben Parkes (also last seen in Over the River) is equally fine as Sarah’s divorced, therapist brother Joel. His silent, suspicious regard for Dr. Steinberg in several of the family scenes often proves as interesting as Sarah and Bob’s stammering antics.
Thompson makes the most of the thankless role of Chris, bringing a loyal sincerity to a character whose sole purpose is to be the object of others’ jokes. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against him. As per the dictates of a love triangle, it is simply too difficult to side with a man who (a) is named Chris Kringle, (b) wears turtleneck and v-neck sweater combos, and (c) whose preferred greeting is a double finger gun.
Chapman turns in a charming central performance as Sarah. Much better cast here than in 2015’s Oklahoma!, she makes it feel as if going along with Sarah’s ridiculous, misguided scheme is the most natural thing in the world. Her enthusiasm is so endearing that one cannot blame Bob for letting himself get carried away. As I observed Bob struggle to impersonate someone who doesn’t exist, I admit I sometimes felt as if I were re-watching Dayley’s performance from last season’s Is He Dead?, but to improved comic effect (likely due to better material). He also made me question my choice in footwear, as I was loathe to note that my slip-on loafers matched his almost exactly, and I wouldn’t want to be accused of wearing nineties shoes. I assume their purpose is to facilitate quick changes, but it seemed like a missed costuming opportunity given that, at one point, he remarks to Sarah that he only owns one suit and a closetful of wingtips.
Beau Jest is While You Were Sleeping meets Fiddler on the Roof, with a little bit of Larry Shue mixed in for good measure. Fortunately, the title’s pun does not apply in the case of this production—HCT’s good intentions have not gone awry. This is the Hale brand doing what the Hale brand does best. If you love Hale Centre Theatre, you will love Beau Jest.