THEATER REVIEW : Fast-Paced, 'Miss Pell' Is Missing the Mark

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 a fearsome ogre of a woman. The same setup occurs in 1929's "Broken Dishes," the Donald Meek-Bette Davis vehicle that catapulted 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 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.

Bob Bancroft's Richard Pell, the father, 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.

* "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.

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