Ensemble Theatre Company is one of Santa Barbara’s treasures, consistently producing professional plays in the quaint little Alhecama Theatre, to the general pleasure of its audiences with seldom a misstep.
That makes it all the more painful to assess its newest venture, The Uneasy Chair, by Evan Smith. The play is being promoted as an amalgam of Oscar Wilde and Monty Python. It is more on the order of George Eliot on an off day, with a few of Benny Hill’s less inspired bits. The plot concerns two mismatched couples who manage to marry and thrive in spite of their bickering and resentments.
The actors cannot be faulted; they are uniformly excellent. The middle-aged lovers, Capt. Josiah Wickett and Miss Amelia Pickles, are gamely portrayed by Michael Rothhaar and Lynne Griffin, respectively. The two manage to put some pizzazz in their cumbersome dialogue, which is meant to satirize Victorian-age circumlocutions and ornate language. The younger sweethearts are played by Kim Swennen, appealing in the ingénue role, and Jason Chanos, equally likeable as her suitor. There is a fifth cast member, Matt Gottlieb, who takes on the other parts — including lawyer, judge, clergyman and parlor maid — with brio.
The production offers effective Victorian sets by D Martyn Bookwalter and elegant costumes by Barbara Lackner. Dennis Lee Delaney has provided competent direction.
But oh, the play. It was produced off-Broadway 10 years ago and a New York Times critic promptly dismissed it as “less than scintillating.” That was being kind. Playwright Smith has built three long acts on the premise that Victorian manners, mores and language are fair game for ridicule. Any ideas are beside the point in his writing. It seems doubtful that he has ever read or seen The Heiress, adapted from the Henry James novel, or, for that matter, The Importance of Being Earnest by Wilde. Now there are some Victorian attitudes, along with quite a few remarkable ideas.