Playwright: adapted by Margaret Raether from the stories of P.G. Wodehouse. At: First Folio Theatre at the Mayslake Peabody Mansion, 1717 W. 31st, Oak Brook. Phone: 630-986-8067; $26. Runs through: March 2
In many ways, the popular appeal of P.G. Wodehouse's airy comedies is not unlike that of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances. In both genres, the universe is the artificial world of British high society, its denizens rendered financially and genealogically secure from inconvenient real-world concerns. The plots usually involve giddy lovers crossed by strait-laced elders or their own foolishness, with further complications engendered by frivolous clashes of wealth, morals and/or temperament. Everything always ends with human values triumphing over the status quo, however, thanks to quixotic crusader Bertie Wooster and his clever Sancho, Jeeves.
Their adventures being largely interchangeable, it comes as little surprise that playwright Margaret Raether starts with the premise of a specific narrative, 'Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,' but then proceeds to incorporate material lifted from several other stories in the Bertie and Jeeves canon. She even introduces elements manufactured from whole cloth—for example, allowing the obstructive Sir Rupert and domineering Aunt Agatha ( a pair whom Bertie likens to 'mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps' ) their bit of romance, in between making trouble for the youngsters.
This First Folio production's dissimilarity to City Lit's legendary 15-year-plus canon of page-to-stage Wodehouse adaptations is also apparent in its heightened focus on Marx Brothers-style physical humor over ironic declamation. Though the characters' names have obviously been selected for their buffoonish qualities—the meek Eustace Bassington-Bassington ( short 'a' on the first, long 'a' on the second ) , the Nietzsche-reading Gertrude 'Gert the Flirt' Winklesworth-Bode, the gruff Sir Rupert Watlington-Pipps et alia—what keeps the pace brisk and action lively are the offstage crashes, falls over furniture, heads popping up from behind sofas and irrepressible bachelors literally dancing for joy.
For this brand of slapstick to come off requires the precision and agility of acrobats, but Movement Director Michael F. Goldberg has drilled his team to perfection, from the arse-in-air vaudeville wrestling match to a melee involving a tureen of hot soup juggled from person to person. Nor is the wordplay neglected—indeed, under Philip Timberlake's vocal coaching, the dialects emerge so sharp-edged that final consonants almost gleam in the light. And Angela Miller's scenic design provides a veritable museum of tschotchkes to augment the neo-Tudor interior of the Peabody Mansion's parlor-playhouse, its cozy ambience sufficiently rewarding to justify a wintry journey to the western suburbs.