I’ve seen dozens of plays at Brooklyn College, some of which moved me to tears and some of which bored me to tears. The quality of the plays here may waver (I’m looking at you, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire), but the acting is always top-notch.
So I had high hopes going into Act A Lady, based solely on the names on the playbill. Jordan Harrison is a fantastic playwright and a Pulitzer nominee, so the script had to be good. Mary Beth Easley’s atmospheric direction elevated the previous two season openers, Middletown and Fen, so that had to be good as well. And you know what? They are good. Yet in spite of a witty script and solid direction, Act a Lady never really reaches the heights a play with this creative team should be reaching… and, much as it pains me to say this, its failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors.
It’s not that the cast is bad, so much as they’re unsuited for the play’s premise. Act A Lady takes place in a Midwestern town circa 1920, where a group of men agree to perform in an 18th century French melodrama. The twist? In the play inside the play, our leading men are playing ladies.
Therein lies the problem: the three gentlemen in the cast spend half the play as men of the Midwest and half the play as countesses and chambermaids, and there’s a visible gap in quality between the two. Take Patrick O’Konis’s performance, for example. As the moonshine-drinkin’ womanizer True, O’Konis is a lovable scoundrel who’s obviously much smarter than he lets on. But then he puts on a garish wig and becomes Countess Roquefort, a vain villainess who plots the murder of a fellow aristocrat to steal a precious emerald, and everything that makes him compelling is smothered by a joyless drag performance. Between the over-the-top script and the ridiculous period costume (on loan from last winter’s production of Marie Antoinette, presumably), his scenes should be hilarious. So why was the house silent during these scenes? O’Konis is a talented actor, but drag requires a skillset he just doesn’t have.
The same goes for Harrison Marx, who is better suited to playing a guy named Miles than he is Lady Romola Von Plofsdorf. Nelson Orellana fares much better as the effeminate Casper, who’s less interested in the chance to wear a raw silk snood than he is in the once-in-a-lifetime chance to kiss another man. because there’s no chasm between his character and his character’s character.
The actresses here are also double cast, and they’re in the same predicament. Consider Dana Chavez. As Zina, the beturbaned Marlene Dietrich-esque director of the play within the play, Chavez steals every scene she’s in. But then in the second act, she starts playing Casper as well. Or at least, that’s what the playbill says. She’s not convincing as a man in general, but she’s especially unconvincing as Casper in particular. She doesn’t really capture any of Orellana’s mannerisms, nor does her costuming convince me this is the same character; even when they’re on stage simultaneously I can’t see any similarities between the two.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure who any of the actresses were supposed to be in the second act. This is arguably the show’s biggest problem. The men being poor at drag means their scenes are merely less funny than they could have been. But the women being bad at drag distracts from the vital character work their scenes are supposed to contain, and makes the play seem flatter than it should be. It’s all the more frustrating because all three actresses are quite good when they’re not doing inadequate crossdressing: Andriana Georgitsis is a delight as a makeup artist and target of True’s affection, and Sarah Beitch anchors the show playing Dorothy, Miles’s salt-of-the-earth wife, to say nothing of her accordion skills.
And yet, great as the cast is, they just can’t pull off the double casting the show requires, and the show suffers accordingly. Despite all the talent both on- and off-stage, Act A Lady is, dare I say it, a drag.