After two acts of ho-hum, “isn’t-that-cute?” comedy, the Hale Center Theater’s production of “George Washington Slept Here” redeems itself with a third act that is hysterically funny and well worth the wait.
I’ve never seen a show make such a fast turn-around, but this one does.
Set in the ’50s, the Kaufman/Hart play is about Newton Fuller (Jim Gastelum), a businessman who gets tired of living in the city and buys a dilapidated old shack in the country that was supposedly once slept in by George Washington. His wife, the always-sarcastic — and boy does THAT grate after a while — Annabelle (Nancy Stewart Douglas) hates the idea but goes along with it, presumably so she can make withering remarks at her husband every time she opens her mouth.
The tension between the two is supposed to be funny, but the laughs are few and far between up until intermission. The house is practically falling apart, and the neighbors are all weird … but none of that amounts to much amusement, either. The script isn’t exactly laugh-a-minute to begin with, and the cast seems too eager to jerk chuckles out of you however they can.
The real entertainment comes in the final act. Visiting Uncle Stanley (LaMarr Nielsen) is unable to help the Fullers come up with the money they need to make the payment on the house, and the evil Mr. Prescott (Lyn Vickery), a British man with an accent not found in the real world, is going to foreclose.
Newton and Annabelle begin to despair, and it’s most amusing. Their solution? To drink, at 10 in the morning. Everyone who comes in is offered his or her own bottle, and soon we’re having a grand time. The tension between husband and wife was more uncomfortable than funny anyway; now that they’re in league (she’s fallen in love with the house, too), we can relax and enjoy their banter.
Nielsen is a saving grace as Uncle Stanley, fully committed to the part and making it more than just a bland stereotype of rich, demanding uncles. Gastelum’s Newton is also very likable. Even when the play is not funny, it rides well on his easy-going shoulders. Douglas, too, is good, once Annabelle stops being sarcastic all the time and starts being a real person.
Also earning many laughs is the Fullers’ precocious nephew Raymond (Bryce Ashdown). His outspokenness provides most of the best laughs in the second act.
There are some loopy interludes, mostly as time-fillers while the sets are changed, in which the cast lip-synchs to an appropriate song and dances around the stage like crazy people. Part of what makes the third act so good is that it is full of that kind of wacky sensibility, as if the cast has freed itself from the shackles of the humdrum script and is finally cutting loose.
Man, was this unfunny for the first two acts. The actors would say things, and then I would listen to the audience not laughing. It was dreadful. And I can't even blame much of it on the cast or director. I think the script really just isn't very funny until the end.
Hale Center generally does older comedies. Why? I'm guessing because they're cheaper to get. The newer and more popular a show is, the more you have to pay in royalties to perform it. If you find something way old that no one's ever heard of, you can get it dirt-cheap. Some playwrights, like Jack Sharkey, are performed almost exclusively by theaters who can't afford anything better. Too bad, really. The Hale Center often has access to some talented people who could do a fine job if they were given something less moldy to work with.
I was honestly surprised when, a few weeks after this ran, I received a VERY angry letter from an old lady (which later became the subject of a humor column). This didn't strike me as the kind of scathing, devastating review that would inspire such a reaction, but here it is, with all mistakes intact, exactly as she wrote them. Please be aware that she asks many questions in this letter, but uses very few question marks.
I won't even address you as Dear Mr. Snider. You do not warrant even that much respect. I just read your wonderful criticism of the Hale Center Theater production of "George Washington Slept Here". Even your opening remarks were sickening. You must see your self as a great drama critic. I see you as a sarcastic, critical man who thinks he is better and more knowledgeable than any one else. Do you think your review made any one want to see that good play?. [That being, of course, the main purpose of a review.] Do you think your great marvelous review made any of the actors feel good about themselves or the play? [That being the other purpose of a review.] Do you know a thing about people's feelings or how to treat them. Did you ever hear of that experiment done in college in a writing class. Let me tell you. [OK.] The class was divided in half. One half of the class was to critic the class with praise the other half with criticism. There was not one of the students in the half that used criticism and sarcasm that went on to write. They all lost interest in it. On the other hand nearly every one in the other half of the class kept up their interest in writing.
Your sarcastic remarks would encourage no one. [Encouragement being the third major reason for writing a review.] You accused the wife of nothing but sarcasm. What about yourself.
You criticized the script. [Watch carefully for the argument I hear most often from old people who don't like my reviews.] That play has been around a long time. [Did you catch it?] You criticized the British man's accent. Why don't you look at your own. [OK, now we're just getting weird. In order to criticize an actor's bad British accent, I have to be capable of doing a better one myself? Why, so I can step in as an understudy if need be? As it happens, I CAN do a better one -- you probably can, too, and I don't even know you -- but that's beside the point.] Where do you get that tension was more uncomfortable than funny. Do you have tension with your wife all the time? Are you a master on telling how other people feel. [I meant the tension was uncomfortable for the audience, not the characters. And I get that it wasn't funny from the fact that no one was laughing.]
Why don't you give the director some better time fillers while sets are being changed if you are so good at it and they were so bad. [I don't even know where to begin explaining what's wrong with that sentence. First, I said the time-fillers were GOOD, not bad. I described them as "loopy" and implied that the show would have been better if that kind of "wacky sensibility" had been employed more often. Second, even if I had said they were bad, I wouldn't have suggested that I could come up with better ones. Third, it's also not the job of a reviewer to tell the director specifically how to fix a show, but rather to point out the show's strengths and weaknesses and let him or her take it from there.]
I hope this letter makes you realize how your wonderful write up makes other people feel. [My write-ups make people laugh as they post them on their Web sites? Cool.] If it makes you feel great about your self them keep on using the same technique. If not try to praise and encourage these people that spend so much time practicing and rehearsing so others can have an enjoyable evening of entertainment, which we did. It was a wonderful play, very humorous and enjoyable. [Where have I heard those sentiments before? Oh, yeah, that's pretty much what I said about it.] I'm glad I saw it and enjoyed it before I read your magnificent review. Keep up the good work and see how many people you can discourage from coming to see it.
I am 77 years old [Really? You write so youthfully] and have had season tickets to Hale Center Theater since the first year it started in Salt Lake. I also have been around to other theaters like Phantom of the Opera etc and appreciate the talent of these wonderful people. There are no better plays put on anywhere than at Hale Center. [Wow! Hale Center's good, but, um....] There are never any snide remarks or dirty jokes or innuendoes in any of the plays. [That's how you know they're the best: They're the cleanest. Clean = high artistic quality.]
How does this letter make you feel? [Like I hope I never, ever get old.] Well it is just like your own letter. Why don't you try a little kindness and praise instead of so much tearing down of every one and every thing. You would be a much better critic. [I'd be a much better critic if I criticized less. Similarly, this woman would be a much better letter-writer if she wrote fewer letters.]
Salt Lake City
Quite a delightful angry letter. One of the angriest I've ever received, actually. Kudos to Mary Barrowes.
There was a self-righteous woman who used to tell me what I should and shouldn't do in my "Snide Remarks" columns. She would e-mail me every now and then, tell me how marvelously funny and talented I was, and then gently point out all the things in the current column that I shouldn't have done. She seemed to be the expert on what constitutes "good" (i.e., acceptable before the Lord) comedy, and she felt free to tell me about it.
Well, when I mocked this letter in a column, she freaked out big-time and wound up having herself removed from the "Snide Remarks" mailing list. She also made serious accusations toward me about how I don't have the Spirit, and how depressing and sad my life must be, and a bunch of other crap. Her name was Deanna Morgan, but she always signed her e-mails "Sister Morgan," to remind me that she was LDS, too. I'm glad not to be getting weekly reprimands from her anymore.