Watching North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of the French farce, Now You See It (originally entitled Le Systeme Ribadier) is like watching the early stages of a rising magician. The magic trick might have a little too much setup, but there is delight in seeing the execution of the illusion.
In the sitting-room of an Edwardian English home, a member of Parliament, Summersby (Kern McFadden) lives with his sharp bride, Marie-Louise (Allison Minick), and a former magician turned alcoholic butler, Oriole (John Greenleaf). Though involved in the Suffrage Committee, Summersby feels superior to his wife and shares many comments that come across as sexist. Their marriage might be tested after a man from Marie’s past, Shaftesbury-Phipps (David McBean), comes to visit the couple. What follows is a tricky plot filled with romance, deceit and unusual twists.
The North Coast Rep staging is the U.S. premiere of the 1892 comedy. What makes this occasion even more exciting is that the playwright is Georges Feydeau (the English translation is written by the late British translator of drama, Kenneth McLeish.). To this day, Feydeau is still well respected for the many comedies he had written during his career.
Given Feydeau’s reputation, one would expect almost non-stop laughs from the opening scene. Yet, the biggest problem in the interpretation are instances of uneven pacing.
As in the case in other farces, early sections rely on buildup before the biggest comical moments occur. However, some of the funnier examples of light entertainment can mask extensive exposition with witty dialogue and instantly memorable characters.
With Now You See It, Feydeau relies a little too much on backstory, especially during an extensive conversation between Summersby and Marie. McFadden and Minick give witty performances, but in the beginning, the roles, are those of gratuitously talkative people.
Several smaller sequences also rely a little too much on excessive details and recollections of the past. Still, there is nothing nearly as unintentionally lengthy as the first major discussion between Summersby and Marie. However, as the evening progresses, the married couple become significantly more interesting the longer they are onstage.
The night picks up considerably with the introduction of Shaftesbury. Speaking with an exaggeratedly melodramatic voice and appearing physically awkward, McBean has some of the funniest material of the evening.
Adding to the zaniness are Greenleaf and Ruff Yeager, as a hotheaded wine-merchant, Vole. The two of them are featured in physical gags that would not have been out of place in an upbeat silent movie.
The action becomes more complex after several major revelations, and director, Bruce Turk, is up to the task of wowing viewers. No spoilers will be given to what Turk has up his sleeve, but there are at least a couple of moments where he throws San Diegans for a loop with plenty of shock and awe.
Aiding Turk are set designer, Marty Burnett, lighting designer, Matthew Novotny and sound designer Melanie Chen. A big scene that showcases their collaboration is the otherworldly end of Act 1. As an intense song plays in the background, Novotny and Chen help create an unearthly tone that builds to a grand finish.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of costume designer, Anastasia Pautova, is her choice of clothing for Oriole. She makes Greenleaf look similar to an actual magician which only enhances his depiction of the goofy soul.
While there are slow patches, wacky humor, sequences of wonder and an often surprising plot rewards theatregoers looking for a whimsically enchanting night. Audiences seem to be falling under Feydeau’s spell, because the run of the Solana Beach production has been extended until March 27.