New Girls in Town

Two rarely staged comedies that are entertaining, but innocuous

For those who like stiff-upper-lip comedies in which every third line is prefaced by "I say...," Aliceprovides a pleasant enough diversion for a hot summer night. (In fairness, it should be noted that -- unlike Filumena, which has never found wide acceptance in America -- Alice Sit-by-the-Fire has always been a surefire crowd-pleaser. This, despite the ever-grousing critics, who have never taken to it.)

Even at a trim two hours (which includes two intermissions), the action drags. Perhaps that's because the plot seems to be at odds with the staging. ACT Inc. insists on mounting its shows in the round, yet the plays they choose almost always were written for a proscenium. Now that the summer company has found a home in the Fontbonne University black-box theater, it would be so easy to eliminate that obtrusive and unnecessary single row of seats against the lobby wall and transform the playing space into a three-sided thrust.

While most local theaters are eager to produce the most popular titles, for 25 years ACT Inc. has sought less-familiar scripts, for which the group deserves great credit. But would it be heresy to suggest that it might be time to consider looking beyond obscure British drawing-room comedies? Obviously, this 100-year- old chestnut was chosen in order to piggyback onto the success of Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp portrays playwright Barrie. In the abstract, that makes sense. But lately too many ACT Inc. offerings have begun to look and sound forgettably alike. (Quick: What was the plot of last season's Diana of Dobson's?)

Go ask Alice: Janice Burns-Mantovani (left) and Julia Kofkoff (right) star in J.M. Barrie's stiff-upper-lip comedy.
Go ask Alice: Janice Burns-Mantovani (left) and Julia Kofkoff (right) star in J.M. Barrie's stiff-upper-lip comedy.

Details

Filumena
By Eduardo de Filippo. Directed by Marty Stanberry. Performed by HotCity Theatre through July 30 at the ArtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $18 to $23. Call 314-482-9125.

Alice Sit-by-the-Fire
By J. M. Barrie. Directed by Steve Callahan. Performed by ACT Inc. July 22-24 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Center Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton. Tickets are $12 to $15. Call 314-725-9108.

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Ironically, HotCity's Filumena is the sort of play we might expect ACT Inc. to stage. It seems an unlikely choice for its venue. And at a time when the most frequent complaint heard in the local acting community is that the St. Louis Rep runs too closed a shop, nothing seems more closed than Filumena. When seemingly half the HotCity staff -- or their brothers or their cousins or their aunts -- is onstage, the result is suspiciously reminiscent of a vanity production. Let's hope HotCity gets past this amiable exercise in self-indulgence and once again focuses on the kind of immediate, provocative theater that, at its best, it does better than anyone in town.

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