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Theater review: Screen Plays' 'The Entertainer' 

Three and a half hours is a long time, depending on the context. It's longer than any of "The Lord of the Rings" films, a baseball game, and most middle school relationships. It's especially long for a play.

Screen Plays, a local community theater group that produces "Hollywood's Golden Age on Stage," is currently performing John Osborne's 1957 play, "The Entertainer," at Geva's Fielding Stage. Clocking in with three acts and two intermissions, it's an ambitious undertaking for a non-professional organization.

"The Entertainer" often falls into the category of "kitchen sink realism," a British art and cultural trend in the 1950's and 60's that featured "angry young men" -- usually working class -- who were disillusioned with society. Think family drama meets metaphorical activism. "The Entertainer" was written more so for an angry, middle-aged man, and it featured a 50-something-year-old Laurence Olivier in the leading role both onstage and in a 1960 film adaptation.

The story follows Archie Rice (portrayed here by William F. Alden), a music hall entertainer in the English countryside whose career is fading during the Suez Crisis. (Both topics probably hold more meaning for a British crowd, but audience members in this show will appreciate Director Jean Gordon Ryon's thorough notes in the program.)

Rice is a womanizer in his second marriage, with three grown children and a retired showman father who lives with him. The plot also focuses on Archie's daughter from a first marriage, Jean Rice (Marcy J. Savastano), who is visiting from London after a disagreement with her fiancé.

The cast is filled with familiar faces; Screen Plays tends to work with many of the same actors over and over. On one hand, it's a common theme in community theater -- but it does lend a danger of the same "characters" popping up in every show.

"The Entertainer" isn't a musical, but there is a lot of music, and Musical Director Andrew Links actually penned some of the songs himself. Alden does most of the singing, with a few solos by Greg Ludek (who plays Billy Rice) and Daniel Soto (who plays Archie's son, Frankie). If the music had been written for true musical performers, this may have worked. But as it stands, both the addition of musical numbers and music hall performers and showgirls seemed unnecessary and really did not complement the strengths of the cast. Accents, likewise, were all over the place geographically and should have just been dropped.

Throughout the show, there were two things on stage that elicited strong emotional reactions: an audio speaker that made almost constant buzzing and beeping sounds each time it was used (rage); and the ever-present glasses full of gin (envy).

There were some moments where the cast's talents glimmered through; several scenes and bits of dialogue felt authentic and engaging. (Savastano, especially, is usually a pleasure to watch onstage.) But overall, the show was reminiscent of a line delivered by Archie in reference to his own psyche: "...dead behind the eyes." In addition, the barrage of racist and sexist slurs and slang throughout the script felt unintelligent and outdated, rather than contextual.

In regard to costumes and set pieces, the time period was consistently hard to gauge. It felt more like the early 20th century in both design and tone, rather than mid-century. There were some odd choices as well, such as what appeared to be a spattered paint drop cloth haphazardly hung as a backdrop. In many ways, the aesthetic decisions felt underdeveloped.

Screen Plays, which marks five years in 2017, is still a fairly young ensemble. As with any community theater in the area, sometimes the group is limited to the abilities of those who audition. In that case, though, it may be better to choose a simpler show or a shorter run in a smaller house. Ryon, who is Geva's New Plays Coordinator by day, has directed for the group many times in the past, but this show isn't her strongest work.

On Geva's website, the play is listed at three hours, including two intermissions, it's really more like three and a half (not to mention Saturday's performance didn't start until 7:10 p.m.). Unless you have a really spectacular cast, a stunning script, or celebrity status, you don't have a warrant to keep people inside the theater for three and a half hours during Rochester's brief summer. Not to mention, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival is happening concurrent with the run of this show -- which means there's world-class entertainment just down the street.

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