New “Jeeves” blossoms at MCT
"Jeeves in Bloom," a Margaret Raether adaptation of the P.G. Wodehouse stories, is packed to the brim with comedy, fueled by a returning Matt Daniels and a cast of archetypal characters.
Egads! A British bachelor is caught up in another unexpected engagement. His aunt wants him to commit grand larceny. It’s 4 p.m. and there’s no martinis to be found.
Thank heavens, Jeeves is back!
By and large, they’ve succeeded. Daniels again taps into the peculiar cadence and rhythm of Jeeves, and has the exact timing of a man who must always be in the right place. There could be an inevitability or boredom to Jeeves’ lack of mistakes, but Daniels is simply too fun to watch.
Surrounding him and Bertie (Chase Stoeger) is a cast of stock characters: the nerdy friend, the dreamy girl, the meddling aunt, the grumpy uncle, the mad chef. Normally, such thinly fleshed roles would irritate, but Jeeves in Bloom is played with a constant wink to the audience. “Of course we’re raging stereotypes,” they suggest. “Isn’t that what you came for?”
I suppose it is. There isn’t much realistic romance in the courtship of Gussie Fink-Nottle (Matt Koester), devoted newt-lover, and Madeline Basset (Karen Estrada), deluded poet, but there’s a great deal of comedy, especially once a Cyrano de Bergerac-scheme gone wrong convinces her that Bertie’s the one who is in love with her. And while Bertie’s Uncle Thomas and French cook Anatole have basically the same temperament and narrative purpose as antagonists, Norman Moses delights in playing both, eyes shimmering with every burst of mercurial rage.
Bertie himself is more complicated. There’s the sense he’s meant to be less one-note than the others, and Stoeger often fulfills that promise, especially in a fourth-wall-breaking introduction and in dialogue with Gussie, where he tries (and fails) to get out from under Jeeves’ shadow as an advice-giver. But for the bulk of the play, his character flattens out to become nothing more than a hopeless halfwit, prone to pratfalls and existing on stage only to look silly. It certainly works, but I’d hoped for more.
That leaves the field wide open for Marcella Kearns, playing Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, to become the show’s breakout star. If Daniels’ Jeeves is as dry as a martini, she’s as brisk as a martini to the face, and equally as acerbic. From her very first steps on stage – delivering a series of increasingly direct and insulting requests for Bertie to come to her aid in the countryside – Kearns firmly establishes Dahlia as caring, but without any intention of suffering fools like her nephew, and her ability to let loose a glowing smile and lethal stares of death simultaneously is only the greatest of her many gifts. You’re laughing at everyone else on stage, but you’re laughing with Dahlia, and don’t forget it.
Structurally, Jeeves in Bloom follows the same formula as its predecessor: Act I sets up the characters and lets them make their problems worse, Act II allows Jeeves to swoop in with a solution accounting for even the smallest concern.
The opening problems start simple enough – Bertie needs to help Gussie woo Madeline, and Dahlia needs Bertie to purloin the family diamonds so she can pay for the publication of her women’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Workentin and her cast don’t quite click through that first act – partly a problem of weak interaction, partly a problem of some weaker plot points – but they radically improve in the second. With that tighter, Jeeves-influenced framework, the cast falls into line, tying up each complication in a neat little bow.
About the only thing that didn’t resolve itself to my satisfaction was the decision to end each scene with a cut to black and quick photo flash, revealing the actors in the same position with cheeky facial expressions. I don’t know whether it was just the execution that was bad, or if the whole idea is rotten, but by the fourth or fifth such I would have preferred one of Gussie’s newts crawl down my shirt than see another.
It’s a forgivable mistake. We can’t all be as perfect as Jeeves.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Jeeves in Bloom runs through April 28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. Tickets are $33.50 and can be purchased online or at (414) 291-7800.