Written by Jeff Kramer
Location BeVard Studio at the Oncenter Civic Center,
411 Montgomery St. Syracuse
When March 3 – 18
Runtime 2 1/2 hours (with intermission)
Review by Chris Baker
Most local literates know Jeff Kramer from his days as the voice of wit, humor, and (often) narcissism for the Post-Standard. With his columns no longer gracing the pages of the daily rag, however, the Seattle native evidently required a new medium to flaunt his verbose vocabulary and earn a chuckle (or groan) from a central New York audience. And local theater, it seems, suits his fancy.
In his second play, “Reaching For Marsby” (directed by Len Fonte), Kramer crafts a lovable, albeit somewhat unbelievable, caricature of the average dimwitted American—Gary Blenkinsopp (Mark Eischen). The Homer Simpson-esque Gary is a struggling actor with a big heart, a thick skull and a delicate (yet wildly overinflated) ego. His unfaltering earnestness, however, ultimately outweighs his loutish flaws. Yes, the “sympathetic simpleton” character is an overplayed mainstay in American pop culture, but Eischen delivers the role with great sincerity, winning over skeptics almost immediately as he confidently screeches out an off-key rendition of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and bangs away on an air guitar. Eischen’s greatest feat, however, is convincing the audience he can be a bad actor.
Kramer’s play plops the brash American in a (supposedly) more dignified culture— England. The plot lends itself to a number of obvious bits (What’s a loo? What’s a flat?), but despite an initial fat joke at America’s expense, Kramer avoids the easy chuckles. Instead, he sprinkles in quips about iPhones, the Obama pound and Brits’ affinity for warm beer (a joke lost on most). Of course, the play involves some physical comedy (Gary falling off a chair onto a can of Red Bull), but for better or worse, the dialogue does most of the work. And more often than not, it was for the better.
As the play opens, Gary finds himself cast as the unlikely star of a Victorian era play by Barnabus Marsby. Left with no other options, the provincial English theater resorts to Gary for the lead role—much to the horror of the more talented British cast. The unqualified actor leaves his girlfriend Lisa (Kris Rusho) in New York and takes his American crudeness to England—a land of polite contempt and subtle social cues, most of which are lost on Gary.
Gary adopts an Eliza Doolittle-worthy Cockney accent for his role and regularly ignores the acting advice of his playmates. “Marsby” takes us through a series of productions of the fledgling play where Gary hilariously forgets lines, botches words and breaks character on a regular basis. His fellow actors Edwin (Brendon Cole) and Cordelia (Moe Harrington) react to Gary’s mishaps with varying approaches.
Cordelia, a whimsical tease of a woman, is amused by Gary’s ineptitude onstage. She plays along with him onstage generating moments so uproarious even Harrington often had a tough time keeping a straight face. Edwin, on the other hand rants and raves to the producer Blane Meeks (Michael O’Neill) about having to share the stage with such a hack. And while the director Meredith (Karis Wiggins) struggles to remain optimistic, the fourth cast member, Richard (brilliantly played by Peter Moller) seems completely impartial to Gary’s blunders. As the play’s token “old man,” Moller steals the occasional scene with his exaggerated ambivalence toward Gary and regal soliloquies to no one.
Despite Gary’s insensitivity and downright stupidity throughout the play, it’s hard not to wish him well. His most redeeming qualities are also what make him so undeniably American: he dreams big and he doesn’t quit (even when it seems he should). He isn’t the smartest chap, and he certainly isn’t the most talented, but he is authentic and true. As the plot unfolds, Gary’s dreams are repeatedly realized, only to be dashed, and he struggles to adjust to the fickle life of the theater.
The play certainly isn’t flawless (though the acting came close). The occasional triteness and Kramer’s deus ex machina, however, is overshadowed by detailed performances and genuine heart.