Donkeys’ Years, the second show of the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s 2016/17 season, marks the solo directorial debut of AltDaily’s own Evan Lambert.
Mr. Lambert has established himself as a conspicuous talent on the Push Comedy Theater’s improv stage, and has in recent years contributed his many abilities to various productions around the Hampton Roads area.
As his editor at this publication, I also consider him to be a tremendously gifted writer, and a friend. It is therefore with the utmost respect that I fulfill the onerous obligation of pronouncing to the world that I didn’t like his show.
That said, here’s a little bit of context.
“Donkeys’ Years” is a phrase in Cockney rhyming slang that means “a long time”… “Years” rhymes with “ears”, and a donkey’s ears are long. Get it? Me too, I guess. Donkeys’ Years is therefore – as the play concerns a 25-year college reunion – an appropriate title for the second full-length play by British comedic playwright Michael Frayn. (Unless it occurs to you that none of the characters in the play speak Cockney. But whatever. I’ll shut up, now.)
The play opens on the quad of the fictitious Oxbridge University (a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge,) where a gaggle of middle-aged grads is convened for the first time in twenty-five years. They warily re-introduce themselves to each other and then head off to the dining hall. Spirits flow and inevitably an impromptu party is held in the old dorms, which quickly gets out of control. Later on, we witness the escalatingly farcical results of the preceding night’s drunken debauchery.
Playwright Michael Frayn is most widely known for his audience-delighting (and actor-punishing) Noises Off, and the penchant he famously demonstrates in that play for leaving a great deal on the director’s plate is very much part and parcel to this show as well. At the time of writing Donkeys’ Years, Frayn had not completely honed his skill. As a result there is much going on in the script that from a story-telling standpoint needn’t be. The second half of the first act in particular contains much filler that does little to develop the characters or advance the plot. This is of course, for an inexperienced director, a ball and chain.
Now allow me at this point to add a caveat: I believe novice directors should be afforded the opportunity of availing oneself of support and advice from more experienced peers. That is after all, the function a community theatre should strive to serve. My gut tells me that for whatever reason Mr. Lambert simply did not have that luxury.
The ensemble of actors pour everything they’ve got into their performances. Rafael Henriquez, in the lead role of Mr. C.D.P.B. Headingley, convincingly evolves from awkwardly reserved, to bombastically drunk, to sympathetically hung-over in the course of the evening. Christopher Bernhardt as D.J. Buckle, MD and Dave Olson as A.V. Quine, give endearingly stodgy performances and should be highly be commended.
Jonathan Hite, as K. Snell — the man whom no one remembers, is also fantastically entertaining. For my money, the standout performance in this show is that given by Elizabeth Dickerson as Lady Driver. Her stage presence is undeniable, and her Judy Dench-esque accent is perfect. In fact, Dialect Coach Shirley Hurd Anderson is to be congratulated for the aplomb with which all the actors rendered their accents, none more so then Ms. Dickerson.
In fact, there isn’t an actor on the stage who doesn’t bring their A-game. Frank McCaffery, Steven Meeks, and Adam Silorey all give equally eminent and invested performances. All the foregoing having been said, the show is arguably stolen by Dave Clapsaddle, whose characterization of the Rev. R. D. Sainsbury is an over-the-top gay stereotype that appears to have limp-wristedly clawed its way out of a “Fritz the Cat” cartoon. Believe it or not, this wildly flamboyant portrayal is actually less offensive than – and may in fact have been intended to subvert – the lazy one-note joke the character is rendered as in the seventies-era script. So good thinkin’ fellas.
Lamentably however, the cast never gels as a group. They never get their timing down pat. Lines are uttered with perfect delivery, but fall into silence before the next line is delivered. The first rule of farce is that you should always be one line ahead of the audience, but the audience with whom I saw the show were consistently ahead of the performers. Consequently, excepting an occasional chuckle here and there, the house was painfully silent throughout. This torpid pacing also results in the first act being waaaaay too long. A well-drilled comedic cast would have had us spending our money at the concession stand in seventy minutes or so. Energy and pace seemed to pick up in the second act, but by then the audience were groggy and phlegmatic. In the immortal words of some Vaudeville hack or another, “Fast is funny, time is money.”
Where its technical elements are concerned, Donkeys’ Years is also quite uneven. The sound design by John Roberts establishes the mood and fleshes out the production very well. Katelyn Jackson’s costume design denotes every character, as well as the time period, in an understated but completely appropriate way. Abby Kline’s props serve the show extremely well. (The beer barrel and the collapsible table it collapsed were pretty much solid gold as far I’m concerned.) Derrion La’Zachan’s lighting design is admirably cohesive, and also gives us some fun and inventive displays during the transition moments and intermission. Local directors take note: each of these creative people probably has some ingenious contributions to make should they be challenged more in future productions.
This show being one that requires little of the aforementioned creative designers, the scenic design is where the weight of the technical production rests. After having been very impressed by Matt Friedman’s set for Steel Magnolias at LTVB last season, I was excited to see his name in the program for Donkeys’ Years. Alas his contribution to this production is disappointing. The look of the first scene in Act 1 is very nice, effectively evoking the old-world field stone and ivy-clad feel of a centuries-old British college campus. Everything that followed, however, seemed to be an afterthought, with stark interior spaces that lacked any sort of deliberate shape.
The set design also does the production a disservice as it requires a lengthy transition in the middle of the first act. Kudos to director Lambert for staging some diverting business in front of the curtain to fill the several minutes during which the changeover takes place, but it should have been faster. I should also note that the mid-act transition began about thirty seconds before the curtain closed on the night I saw the show… and I saw it on its second weekend.
This is what tech is for, my friends. Work. It. Out. BEFORE you start asking people to pay to see it. I also feel compelled to chastise LTVB’s scenic crew for leaving clearly visible seams and conspicuous hardware nailed without any artifice to the walls of the set. It just looks crummy, and we’ve come to expect better, especially from this theatre.
Ultimately I have to say I don’t know exactly where this all ran off the rails.
The cast, without exception, are all very talented. The production team is very talented. The director is very talented. And yet Donkeys’ Years is, in the final account, a bad show. It’s the type of bad show one could, within reason, expect from a fledgling director at any community theatre other than LTVB, where in prior seasons a creative and logistical support network has always existed to enable a creative person of Mr. Lambert’s proclivity to earn a better review than what I’m forced to give.
What happened, guys?
Donkeys’ Years runs thru 12/4 at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg; $15 Seniors, Military, Full-time Students; $12/ea Groups 12+. Call (757) 428-9233 or click here to buy now.
Don’t forget to come back here and let us know what **you** think of Donkeys’ Years in the comments!