RECALL AN OLD SAYING about letting rejected Pudding scripts lie? Or perhaps that they never die, but only move into the Houses? Both apply to Thebes Like Us, currently playing at Leverett Old Library. It remains essentially a weak Pudding script plus women, but sans the big budget and skilled hands guiding and controlling a campy flavor. It's hard to pinpoint the blame for Thebes's failure--whether it's Andrew Sellon's book and Andrew Schulman's music, or the production itself, directed by Sellon. But the evening ends up empty--bordering on the amateurish rather than the amateur.
Sellon informs the audience in an "Author's Note" that his show is not supposed to be original. The characters are "blissful stereotypes all," the note says. The note's existence points to the major flaw in Sellon's directing: He is not secure enough to let the audience find things funny without prodding, and he doesn't understand that even stereotypes need life breathed into them. In addition, Sellon lacks technical skills as a director. Characters turn upstage for no apparent reason, or stare at the ceiling in obvious discomfort. Sellon chooses to have actors find their puns stupendously funny, depriving the audience of a chance to do so.
The acting ranges from flashes of humor to painful awkwardness. Elizabeth McNary, as evil high priestess Slipreewenwhet, delivers some glorious Mae Westian asides. LeRoy W. Collins has a flair for outrageousness, but is miscast as the lecherous Pharoah, Seqentunun. Jim Tung, as Inkitin the scribe, Clare McGorrian as Eforeti the Queen, Mary Demerest as an anachronistic Brooklyn servant, and Michael Cohen as the thief Ali Katz, all have moments, but something doesn't gel. Cohen, especially, shows raw talent, but lacks experienced directorial guidance to help him bring his Peter Lorre persona off. Dede Schmeiser also shows potential as Rosetta Stone, a character fashioned in the mold of Gracie Allen. Her Pillsbury doughgirl face--complete with apple cheeks and black current eyes--and boop-boop-eedoo voice beg for a part like this. But her performance is too forced; she mugs about the stage all but saying I'm being cute and this is a laugh line." But the more she tries to be cute, the more she fails to bring any dimension into Sellon's vapid stereotype.
Jon Isham's mugging is confined to the one simple expression he is capable of making--severe pain--although, to be fair, he has one of the nicest voices in the show. There are painfully few singers in this show; some are barely able to carry a tune let alone handle phrasing. Sonia Dula, as the ingenue Neferbinkist, is the most obvious example of this. Her performance as a sweet young thing depends on a pretty face and a lack of presence. Apparently, almost no one can dance either, to judge from the few steps Kay Stone choreographed. It's difficult to judge her abilities, although people could have at least been drilled to allieviate sloppy execution. One number, "Sahara Stomp" was good, using well-rehearsed, technically simple ensemble movements. The music to this, with its heavy beat, was also more successful, avoiding the blandness Schulman often fell into.
Some of Schulman's music is so bad that one must conclude it is intentionally tacky. "Dig Right In" appears to be a take-off of those insipid chorus bits favored by the likes of Carol Burnett. But this attempt at satire fails because many of Schulman's other numbers are as insipid as those chorus bits he tries to satirize. Unless he has a specific objective--for example, to parody a '50s song as he does in "Mummy Knows Best"--his tunes slide into something reminiscent of a Burt Bacharach medley. The satire in the book, like the satire in the music, is too often undirected. The targets of Thebe's satire are so easy to hit that the jokes hold no surprises. In fact, the wittiest satire in the production is not in the writing but in Elizabeth Perlman's costumes, Caroline Labiner's set, and Ellen Gainor's makeup which mix elegance with a Las Vegas atmosphere.
Some of the chintziness achieves its intended comic proportions. The evil priestess ties our heroes to stakes, threatening them with sacrifice to vicious alligators. But small, adorably wiggly plastic things are tossed out on stage, and for once Sellon doesn't ruin it for himself and us--the actors respond as though these are, indeed, vicious creatures. If this attitude had prevailed, Thebes Like Us might have been the enjoyably silly evening it set out to be.