"George Washington Slept Here"?
Funny, I did, too.
Apologies to true-blue fans of Kaufman and Hart’s 1940 comedy, what with their grand visions of Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan romping through the bright 1942 film version, but the Tempe Little Theatre production of "George Washington Slept Here" illustrates some painful truths of the play:
It’s generally not very funny, more often obnoxious, and across its overly long span that only picks up a bit toward the end, there are absolutely no characters worth caring about.
Director Karen Rolston pushes the story to the present day, with Newton Fuller (played by Kurt Whitman) using only his fax machine and loathing for big-city life to buy a dilapidated old house out in the country. Like every city slicker attracted by the transcendental cliches of nature but unable to deal with its harsh realities, Newton is wooed by the charm of dirt roads and tall trees, and by the pedigree of the house — where, as the title implies, the first president is said to have laid his head.
Alas, the charm wears off when his family comes to see the place — so ramshackle it could make Bob Vila burst into tears — and Newton’s wife (Robin Anderson) wastes no time in showering her hubby with sarcastic insults. "You bought . . . this outhouse?" she says.
As Fuller spends months fixing up the place, friends and relatives like blathering bore Uncle Stanley (Gene Galant) and pesky punk nephew Raymond (Christopher Vehon) come to sit a spell. Meanwhile, mildmannered yokel Mr. Kimber (Kelly Parker) bleeds Newton’s wallet dry with endless lists of needs to get the property in shape. And in the second act, cruel neighbor Mr. Prescott (Jack White, looking for all the world like Spalding Gray and sounding like a mix of Paul Lynde and Jack Nicholson) wants the bank to foreclose on the house so he can buy it.
Sounds like an interesting play, no? No. Like Mr. Kimber, I’ve got a laundry list of necessary repairs: 1) It should be cut into three acts, really, because the first act drags on too long. 2) Even with large concessions to the fact that this is community theater, the performers don’t seem willing to navigate changes in their characters as they grow to accept their screwy new abode. I want to see Newton’s fantasy crushed, then built back up again.
As it is, he just seems naive. And 3) Rolston hasn’t pushed her performers to appreciate the show’s farcical qualities. Most of them, like Whitman and Anderson and maidplaying Amanda Victor, show glimmers of good that goes largely untapped. The show should be played sharp, fast and wacky, not like a quaint sitcom with too-easy jokes and anticipated plot turns. When Patty Hackmann, who has only a throwaway part as a helper, comes out gleefully chewing the stage like she’s got long-lost friends in the audience, I thought, "Yes, I want more of that!"
As it is, being annoyed with "George Washington Slept Here" — even little things in the script, like how often the characters repeat each other’s names, as if to remind themselves who they are — makes for a grating evening of theater.
At some point, your brain shuts off and you drift, like Newton, to an imaginary dreamland, where things are better. As he’ll tell you, the truth hurts.
"George Washington Slept Here"
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Thursday through June 13
Where: Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. Sixth St.
Cost: $14, $12 for seniors and students
Information: (480) 350-8388