Laughs Are Lost Amid Silliness of 'Inspecting'

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There is nothing either very new or original in "Inspecting Carol," the faux Christmas play being revived at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

The last few decades have seen a rash of plays written by a company of actors. This one is by the distinguished director Daniel Sullivan and his Seattle Repertory Co. The plot is directly out of Gogol's "The Inspector General," and the gimmick is another version of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off."

Art by committee is rarely successful, and this play's popularity doesn't distract from its ordinariness. It tells the tale of a very inept theatrical company called the Soapbox Playhouse, albeit an Equity group, terrified by the impending visit of an inspector from the National Endowment for the Arts during their annual production of "A Christmas Carol."

Of course, for several reasons, the production is falling completely apart, and it looks as though their request for a large grant will be canceled.

What real humor there is in the play is very inside theatrical stuff about quality, chance and the ongoing optimism of actors in the face of disaster. Even the idea of a company writing a play is given a backhand slap, when leading man Larry Vauxhall says grandly about the social content of his own additions to Dickens' work, "We know how to write words, because we say words."

This honest humor has been downplayed here by director Michael Ross, who puts the emphasis on slapstick and overplaying to get his laughs. Maybe he doesn't trust the play, or even his audience's ability to understand the play, which, like most comedies, can work only when played dead serious.

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Laughs are lost, and insight clouded, in some performances through silly action and physical goofiness. Ric Watson, usually a very stable actor, plays the inept actor who is mistaken for the inspector as a twitching cartoon no one in their right senses would mistake for a real government official.

Tony Howley, as the company's straight-arrow general manager, choreographs his character's anger and panic with leaps in the air as he twists his body in pirouettes of pique. Ross apparently didn't tell his actors that this is a professional theater company they're portraying, not a junior-high romp.

Some of the cast would look better and be funnier in a better production. Susane Taylor, as the company's artistic director, Andrea La Vela as the stage manager and W. Sterling Wright as the company's purported ethnic concession are fairly realistic and effective, especially Parsons, whose deadpan disbelief at some of the things he is called on to do as all the Ghosts has the right tone.

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Louise Tonti is also good as the pretentious, grandiose belle dame of the company, as is James Belisle in several roles, and Mitchell Nunn has a believable brusqueness as the Method-washed leading man who thinks there's not enough social comment in Dickens' play.

The whole thing really falls apart when the company begins its production for the actual inspector. Ross fills the Soapbox Playhouse with sandbox capers.

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* "Inspecting Carol,"

Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $13. Ends Dec. 13. (714) 375-0696. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Susane Taylor: Zorah Bloch

Ric Watson: Wayne Wellacre

Andrea La Vela: M.J. McMann/Stage Manager

Mitchell Nunn: Larry Vauxhall/Ebenezer Scrooge

Louise Tonti: Dorothy Tree-Hapgood/Mrs. Cratchit

Morgan Christopher: Phil Hewitt/Cratchit

W. Sterling Wright: Walter E. Parsons/Ghosts

James Belisle: Bart Frances

Tony Howley: General Manager

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of the comedy by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Co. Produced by Gigi Fusco & Terri Miller Schmidt. Directed by Michael Ross. Scenic design: Nancy Sroga. Lighting design: Russell Clelland, James D. Salaun. Costume design: Donna Fritsche. Stage manager: Gigi Fusco.

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