When one thinks of spying, it usually brings to mind an ultra-modern locale where secret agents run around with cool gadgets — a la “Mission Impossible.”
However, in “Celadine,” a period tale about a female playwright of the same name and the men who love her, 17th century London serves as the unlikely backdrop.
Did I mention there’s a spy involved? Be careful though; if you blink, you might miss him, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
In its West Coast premiere at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, “Celadine” is the third in a trilogy of spy-themed plays by East Coast playwright Charles Evered. As it turns out, Restoration England proves to be somewhat of a bore when it comes to tales of espionage.
Although it claims not to be historical, the king in question is, in fact, Charles II, a patron of both theater and the arts who was rumored to be a Catholic. Charles had accumulated many enemies throughout Protestant England, and “Celadine” is essentially a fictional re-telling of an assassination plot to kill him.
The only problem is that through most of the first half, and well into the second, “Celadine” presents itself as a pure comedy, with a couple of smart-alecky women who say stuff like “it’s a habit of mine to repel them,” when offered compliments. It reminded me of an episode of the late 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” — without the laugh track, of course.
The play takes place in a London coffeehouse, complete with ornate curtains and a magnificent stone fireplace that serves as a memorial to Celadine’s recently departed daughter. The shop is operated by a former prostitute named Mary (the invaluable Holly Hawkins). Mary is short with the customers and shows no restraint toward her boss Celadine. Fortunately for us, the banter that follows makes for some of the most entertaining moments in the play.
When Celadine makes her grand entrance riding piggyback on a man with no tongue (Will Barker as the mute tailor Jeffrey), the two funny ladies really let loose.
“I’ve found that all the men I’ve dealt with in the past have all been able to talk,” Celadine admits to Mary.
“That can be a problem,” Mary replies.
Celadine, played wonderfully by Giselle Wolf, and Mary could have very well carried the entire play on their own. Their back-and-forth wisecracks were hilarious when they needed to be, and heartfelt each time in between. Like a veteran comedic duo, they managed to keep our attention whenever they shared the same space.
But then Elliot the rogue actor (Michael A. Newcomer) and the King (Larry Cedar) had to spoil it.
Cedar as the terse but courtly Charles II was afforded some of Evered’s most humorous lines, but he recited them without the slightest bit of emotion. His wooden performance felt like that of someone who’s done this time and time again, and even his fellow actors looked as if they were stiffened by his lack of enthusiasm. There was one moment in particular where I’m certain Wolf rolled her eyes after offering the stone-faced Cedar a glass of wine. Had he at least attempted to fake it, Cedar would have been far more likable as the King.
Newcomer was playing a stage actor from the Renaissance era but tended to overact as if he was in fact performing in the 1670s. His big booming voice and perfectly timed dramatic poses repeatedly drew snickers from the audience. At times I felt the urge to laugh when it was obvious the scene intended to be dramatic. Of course it didn’t help that Newcomer was dressed like a comical version of Robin Hood, complete with an enormous hat and cane.
Perhaps I was a bit selfish to wish that both men would keel over and vanish moments after their arrival. Celadine and Mary could have handled themselves for the remainder, and Jeffrey would have boded well by playing the lovable oaf. At least the men’s disappearing act would have given the ladies something funny to talk about.
About the writer JAMES FAMERA has been reviewing books and plays for more than five years.