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Theatre Reviews : ‘Miss Pell’ Is Missing Confidence of Its Director

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At this point, Leonard Gershe’s “Miss Pell Is Missing” could qualify as a genuine antique. Its publisher, Samuel French, has it only in manuscript form. The play is a charming example of the simple, crystal clear comedy, with a delicious O. Henry ending, that was a Broadway staple six or seven decades ago.

What a nice nod to yesterday that Long Beach Playhouse chose to revive it. The play’s situation is well-worn, about a milquetoast father and his antsy daughter trying their best to extricate themselves from the clutches of fearsome ogre of a woman. The same setup occurs in 1929’s “Broken Dishes,” the Donald Meek-Bette Davis vehicle that springboarded Davis to Hollywood.

Staple that it is, it is funny and often witty. The shame in this production is that director Hugh Harrison doesn’t seem to like the play or, at the very least, doesn’t think it’s very funny. He doesn’t trust it. Any revival deserves more respect.

Although any comedy has to play at brisk tempos, Harrison drives most of this production at such a breakneck speed that the actors often have little time to do more than rattle off their lines. He incites mugging and physical shtick. It’s surprising that Gershe’s gentle humor still winks winningly through the mayhem every once in a while.

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Bob Bancroft’s father Richard Pell is ludicrous, alarmingly overacted and without a shred of honest characterization. His mugging is disgraceful. Melissa Doty’s maid brays her lines and never moves at less than a full gallop, a noisy proposition at best.

Alene Duncan Hyatt’s cook is little better, along with John Matthew Sayre’s boob of a fiance, a jerkily pretentious performance with no insight into character or style.

Paul Teschke’s lawyer is a bit closer to both character and period style, as is Tom Wagner’s brash, incompetent private detective for whom, of course, the heroine finally falls.

Like Wagner, Sheri Shapiro as daughter Louise Pell eventually calms down after the lickety-split opening scene and gives the still energetic but gracefully charming performance her character deserves.

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Shapiro’s gradual and realistic change from church-mouse timidity to self-contained flapper liberation survives the production’s misdirection and Harrison’s attempts to refinish a very respectable antique. What on earth would he do to a Chippendale chair?

* “Miss Pell Is Missing,” Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sunday matinee May 15, 2 p.m. Ends May 21. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Sheri Shapiro: Louise Pell

Tom Wagner: David Madison

Bob Bancroft: Richard Pell

Paul Teschke: Oscar Ritter

John Matthew: Sayre Otis Kirby

Melissa Doty: Genevieve

Alene Duncan: Hyatt Pauline

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A Long Beach Playhouse production of Leonard Gershe’s 1920s comedy. Directed by Hugh Harrison. Scenic design: Steven Jay Warner. Lighting design: Ed Gatica. Sound design: Greg McCurley. Costume design: Sallie Licata. Stage manager: Pam Dunahay.


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