Nagle Jackson wrote At This Evening’s Performance, a backstage comedy about an acting troupe’s foibles and fortunes in a totalitarian state, at as palatable a time as any. The year was 1978, when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were interacting reasonably well — those dirty pinkoids had lost a lot of their Cold War mystique, and Seattle-born Jackson figured their Eastern European sponsorship, however oppressive, was worth a snarky spoof or two.
Two years later, the spirit of détente would vanish with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; suddenly, our relations were once again no laughing matter.
That’s not to say that Jackson’s miserable trifle of a play weighed in the balance on the world stage. This North Coast Repertory Theatre entry is so utterly unfunny and underdone that it can’t even find a balance of its own.
No wonder the Russians’ noses are so out of joint.
[The treatments are] crushingly absent here amid the abject lack of ensemble spirit.
It’s all Gunther Posnik’s fault, see. This self-absorbed head of the troupe, a fixture in the fictional police autocracy of Strevia, is doing the deed with ingenue Saskia, while his wife Hippolyta has it hard for a younger cast member (and he her). Meanwhile, nothing gets by sage old Oskar, who as the senior company member offers little advice and even smaller interest in the affairs.
Jackson follows with something about a company spy who’s singled out for assassination as the actors recite their lines from behind set piece for fear of harm; Pankoff, the tyrannical minister of culture, is undoubtedly feeding off the dread, having earlier offered to elevate the troupe to national stature as long as it mounts his plays. If Pankoff doesn’t raise hackles, maybe Valdez will — he’s the minister’s major domo, who can drop you in your tracks with one lethal sneer.
None of this — none of this — makes a lick of sense, especially not as the farce the production values purport the play to be. The blood-curdling cries of anguish; the desiccated wrists across furrowed brows; the ceaseless slamming of doors (inexplicably, there are only two); the slapstick actorial treatments; the ingratiating lights and costumes: They’re all crushingly absent here amid the abject lack of ensemble spirit. Nobody has absolutely any idea that this is all in fun as they follow their own leads come what may. Or maybe their discouragement is simply showing as Jackson’s dialogue isn’t at all that funny to begin with.
But rules are indeed made amid their own exceptions — in this case Richard Baird, whose funny strongman Valdez sports an accent as black as his covetous devotion to the motherland. Even a monumental talent like Baird can’t be expected to shoulder the evening’s burden by himself, which leaves Sierra Jolene’s Saskia, Paul Turbiak’s Piers, Kyle Colerider-Krugh’s Oskar and John Nutten’s Pankoff at the mercy of Andrew Barnicle’s directorial impotence.
Similarly, Bruce Turk’s Gunther and Katie MacNichol’s Hippolyta display a paucity of chemistry, even amid their tenuous marriage (although Jolene and Colerider-Krugh tend toward a few moments, however short-lived).
Set designer Marty Burnett has put together a logistical cutaway of the company’s two dressing rooms, but the treatments on the walls are as stock as the script. The remaining tech follows suit.
Jackson’s tiny country is known for its ancient bathhouses and its sizeable exports of radishes; little else documents its importance except, now, for its atrocious acting company. Indeed, just as the Soviet Union is no more, so is this show a doddering old ruin. Should post-9/11 Russia ever seek to actively occupy an authoritarian state, it should without hesitation point its tanks in Strevia’s direction.
My money’s on Putin.
This review is based on the matinee performance of July 16. At This Evening’s Performance runs through Aug. 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $35-$50. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.