KPBS AIRDATE: November 25, 1992
For no apparent reason, there are eight actors in “The Dresser,” a comic drama by British playwright Ronald Harwood. It’s really a two-person piece. There’s the title character, Norman , and there’s Sir, the fading actor-manager at the helm of a crumbling Shakespearean company.
We are backstage in January, 1942; the shopworn company is playing an English provincial town, with air-raids shrieking in the night. “King Lear” is on the boards, the 227th performance on the road. But Sir is nowhere to be found. Aging, anguished and exhausted, he has collapsed on the street in a physical-mental breakdown. He releases himself from the hospital, and stumbles back to the theater, so Norman can coax, cajole, prod, stroke and dress him to play out his last scene.
A forgettable stream of company players and a patiently loving stage manager waft in and out. There’s one pathetic sexual moment with Sir and a young starlet, and one scathing scene between Sir and Her Ladyship, his long-suffering wife. But mostly, it’s Sir in decline and Norman mincing and prancing about. A fading geezer and a fawning sycophant. After a triumphant final curtain, Sir leaves little behind, least of all gratitude to the dresser who has selflessly, adoringly served him for sixteen years.
This is a scorching portrait of backstage badinage. But also a powerful statement on relationships in general. On those in the spotlight and those in the wings. On those who act well in the theater of life, and those who play small parts in petty ways.
The Coronado Playhouse production of “The Dresser” looks great, but it doesn’t feel right. All the minor characters — and actors — fade into the shadows. And center stage, Thom Rhodes never quite draws us in as Sir. He’s not believably once-great or senescent. His voice and frame are big, but his emotional range is small and his face displays a limited spectrum of expressions.
In the equally challenging role of Norman , Punit Auerbacher poses and swishes perfectly, and he affects a charmingly irksome castrato voice whenever the character is at his bitchiest. He amuses us, but he doesn’t touch us. At his final moments of torment, we feel nothing. This is not the fault of the play, which should make you cringe from Norman ‘s pain.
Directors J. Sherwood Montgomery and Leon Natker have worked well together for years. But they haven’t hit emotional paydirt here. They’ve captured the language of the piece, and Montgomery ‘s set looks just fine. The body of the play is intact. But the heart and soul and guts are somehow missing. The production, though generally well-executed and certainly well-intentioned, could use some rethinking and redressing.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.