In the theater, timing is everything. But the timing frequently feels off with the Players’ production of the theater-centered Applause—not so much in the cast’s delivery of their dialogue, as in the sort of no-man’s land time period the piece inhabits.
Applause first bowed on Broadway as a star vehicle for Lauren Bacall back in 1971, but it was based on the classic film All About Eve, which came out in 1950. For the original Broadway version, the milieu was transferred to the ’70s, when it was daring to introduce a gay character as aging star Margo Channing’s best friend and hairdresser. Much of the Players’ version of Applause (directed by Berry Ayers) feels stuck in that time, and yet there are also uneasy references to an earlier time as well as to today. It doesn’t really work, and the overall production isn’t helped by dance numbers that feel ragged, although energetic.
Those are the negatives, but there are also some positives in the retelling of the story of Margo (Kaylene McCaw), her admirer/betrayer Eve Harrington (Kathryn Parks) and the theater world they live for. There’s a fairly dazzling black-and-white set motif by John C. Reynolds, some nice costumes by Fred Werling, and a couple of successful songs, most notably the Act I finale, Welcome to the Theater, rendered with zest by McCaw, and the title number, performed by a group of theater gypsies led by the upbeat Jennifer Massey. Those numbers get us in the mood for the story, but too often the rest of the production doesn’t deliver.
Parks is believable as the treacherous Eve (except for a scene where she’s auditioning to become Margo’s understudy that falls flat), all sweet and helpful on the surface but scheming and cold underneath. She meets her match in producer Howard Benedict (George Naylor), a substitute for the acidic theater critic played by George Saunders in the original film. (The creators of Applause, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and song writers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, didn’t have permission to reproduce some of the film’s characters, owning only the rights to the original story that inspired the movie.) Naylor is suitably heartless in the role, and among the rest of the cast Shelley Whiteside does a nice job as Margo’s friend, Karen, who naively gets caught in one of Eve’s plots; Tom Westlake is likable as Margo’s beloved, Bill, although he could be more assertive at times; and Jason McCumber overacts wildly as the admittedly campy gay hairdresser.
In the end, much of the show’s appeal comes down, as it should, to the battle between Margo and Eve, and McCaw and Parks deserve credit for playing it up to the hilt.
Applause continues through Sept. 30; for tickets call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.