I quite like the tone of the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's More Than Meets the Eye, as director Joseph R. DePauw's production brings a natural feel, and a welcome lack of affectation, to a play that kind of screams for affectation. Instead of overplaying the plot's cross-dressing humor, Friday night's performance offered a softer, more realistic approach to its comedy that rendered the jokes more subtle, but still laugh-out-loud funny. Unfortunately, the laughs in author Fred Carmichael's play are, if not few, fairly far between (though when the jokes do hit, they're good ones), and it doesn't help that DePauw's pacing is a bit on the slow side, lengthening the wait between punchlines.
Worst of all, though, is that Carmichael takes a fairly good (if somewhat tired) man-in-drag idea - with the male author of popular children's books forced into dressing as his elderly pen name "Grandma Letty" - and stretches it out for too long a time; two hours and forty minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission, is simply too lengthy for such a premise. Carmichael's script could have used some editing to shorten redundant lines in monologues, tighten the comedy, and excise the unnecessary moralizing in the third act, the latter being pretty much unnecessary, condescending (since the lessons learned are obvious ones), and not all that clever. (The latest book by "Grandma Letty" just happens to parallel the author's experiences here, featuring just the right moral about being yourself. Ugh.)
For their part, though, the cast members are quite good, and prove themselves worthy of better-written material. Alex Klimkewicz avoids caricature when his Stanley Nichols dons a wig and shawl as his author's alter-ego, and while there's no way, in looking at him, that I'd believe his Letty was a woman (particularly given his noticeable shadow of stubble), she's believable through his characterization, with a falsetto that's not overly done. And Klimkewicz's Stanley is just as natural a creation, with a true earnestness in his panic over being discovered as a middle-aged man, and not a sweet grandmother.
Molly McLaughlin delivers one of her least affected portrayals as Stanley's wife Christine. Yet while she's good in the part, McLaughlin is unfortunately required to turn on a dime, emotionally. When word first reaches the Nichols' residence that Grandma Letty has won a "Grandmother of the Year" award, which will be delivered in person, Christine is initially supportive of finding someone to play the part of the nonexistent author. But when Stanley himself decides to do it, she is at first apprehensive, and then playful about exposing him, and then suddenly and inexplicably hateful toward the drag deceit, falling into hysterical fits, locking herself in her room, and threatening to leave Stanley. The motivation for this final reaction is mildly set up early in the show, but not to the point of extreme upset where Carmichael takes the character.
As Stanley and Christine's niece Peggy, Mallory Park is a bit of a wonder, given her ability to play her character with remarkable simplicity while delivering jokes with adept timing and inflection. As Peggy's love interest Bradley, Eric Hamer falls a bit into stereotype as a smart nerd, but softens his portrayal with adorably cautious, humble interactions with the other characters.
It's Valeree Pieper and Wayne Hess, however, who steal the show. As a nosy reporter for Time magazine - one hoping to get the scoop on Grandma Letty's identity - Pieper's Prudence Harper is a bright spot of self-certainty and gumption, with an acting style reminiscent of film star Elizabeth Perkins'. Hess, meanwhile, plays Cyril B. Hoskins, Stanley's publisher and the presenter of the Grandma of the Year Award. With inflections, pitch, and a demeanor not unlike James Lipton's, Hess elicits many laughs with his grand gestures and manner, especially when Cyril gets drunk on a bottle of vodka. (Consuming almost the entire bottle, mind you, which should knock him out cold if not, you know, kill him.)
It's too bad, though, that this fine cast is working with a so-so script. It's also too bad that the third act is consumed by so much navel-gazing, without a laugh on hand for probably half an hour. (Isn't this supposed to be a comedy?) Unresolved situations aside, had Richmond Hill's More Than Meets the Eye ended at intermission, I would've left content with the evening's entertainment. However, the third act left a bad taste in my mouth, and I instead left thinking this talented group of performers - and the audience - deserved better.
More Than Meets the Eye runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through July 15, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.