You might think that a nearly 90-year-old play by the author of Peter Pan, rather
preciously titled Alice Sit-By-the-Fire, would come across dated and dull to
contemporary audiences.  If so, think again. 

Alice Sit-By-the-Fire turns out to be one of the freshest and funniest comedies of this
New Year’s season.

Written long before TV, radio, and “talking” pictures had become reality, this often
farcical tale of a teenage girl’s reunion with parents she hasn’t seen in five years
feels in many ways as brand new as a movie just out on DVD.

Alice Sit-By-the-Fire is the comedy of errors which ensues after 17-year-old Amy
Grey misinterprets a kiss between her mother and a family friend, assumes that
they are having a clandestine affair, and decides to take matters into her own
hands and put an end to it, leading to a second act which has her visiting the
family friend’s apartment and (in the best French farce tradition) hiding in the
nearest closet when her unsuspecting mom arrives.

There are two ways in which Alice Sit-By-the-Fire is quite definitely a period piece,
and those are thankfully explained in the director’s notes.  First, it was apparently
common in the early 1900s for a British officer and his wife, stationed in India, to
leave their children back home in England under the care of a nanny for years at a
time, and even for a newborn baby to be shipped back to England until the
eventual return of its parents.  Second, London theater of the era featured a
particularly popular genre of plays in which there were always, as Amy tells it, three
characters, “a lady and two men, one of whom is not her husband.”

The first bit of trivia leads to a very funny first act in which just returned expat Alice
finds herself committing blunder after blunder in her attempts to bond with
daughter Amy, Amy’s slightly younger brother Cosmo, and Alice’s 8-month-old
baby daughter. Alice, who expects her infant to greet her with smiles and
laughter, is greeted instead by a bawling child who much prefers his doting nurse
to this stranger.  When Alice greets Cosmo with open arms and maternal
affection, she finds a boy who wants nothing of his mother’s cuddles, and ends up
smacking him, however inadvertently. Trying to correct this overly effusive display
of motherly love when meeting Amy, Alice makes just the opposite mistake, acting
all cool and proper with a daughter who longs to be hugged.  Poor Alice just can’t
seem to get anything right!

Then comes the overheard “assignation,” which is in truth a quite innocent
meeting between old friends Alice and Steve. Amy, who has spent every night of
the last week with her best chum Ginevra at the theater absorbing the “real life”
romantic triangles required by these “bad girl melodramas,” determines to set
things right by going to Steve’s “chambers,” (the lovers in these melodramas
always meet in the man’s chambers) and demanding from him “the letters!” (the
man always keeps love letters written to him by his married paramour.)

Looking with her long blond hair and Indian tunic something like a 1960s flower
child just returned from a visit with the Maharishi, Alley Mills gives a charmingly
quirky (and truly stellar) performance as Alice. Mills is touchingly distraught when
she realizes that she doesn’t even know how to hold her baby daughter and
needs to be shown how to do so by Cosmo. Such a pitiful mother she is, bemoans
Alice to her husband.  “He saw through me right away, as did baby,” she reveals
ashamedly, and adorably.

Bruce French also does fine work as Alice’s somewhat older husband, the Colonel,
the kind of man who, confronted with a crying baby, tells the nurse “I refuse to
have anything to do with her till she comes to a more reasonable frame of mind.” 

Wide-eyed and zaftig, Betty Wigell captures teenage Amy’s naiveté as well as her
excitement at becoming a kind of private detective and defender of her   
mother’s honor. As Ginevra, Tania Getty, with her high cheekbones and very
proper bearing, provides a more elegant counterpoint to Wigell’s cuddliness.

Miles Marisco gets many laughs as Navel Cadet Cosmo, who, worried that his
father is going to slobber all over him with kisses, does everything humanly possible
to keep his distance from him. Having been given the “beastly” name of Cosmo,
the young cadet tells his father that before people, “you needn’t call me
anything. If you want to attract my attention you could just say “Hst!”  

Understudy Clarinda Ross is sure to get many opening night kudos for her very
funny performance as the Nurse, who fears that she will be replaced by “a black
woman from India, a yahyah they call them.” When Alice asks to see her baby,
Ross responds with a nearly hysterical “You won’t touch her, ma’am?!”  A comic
gem of a performance.

Neil McGowan, as Steve, shows us a man who may just have a longtime crush on
Alice but is too respectful of her marital status to ever declare himself. McGowan
is especially funny in the second act as he reacts with astonishment and confusion
at Amy’s outlandish accusations.

In a sparkling cameo performance which earned her deserved applause upon
exiting, Kristina Harrison portrays Steve’s landlady’s servant Richardson, “wistful at
the sight of food.”  It’s a treat to watch Harrison’s confusion at Amy’s repeated
demands to see Steve’s “man.”  (According to Amy, men like Steve “always have
a man,” though in fact Steve could hardly afford to hire one.) 

Orson Bean appears briefly at the beginning of each of the play’s three acts in the
role of “The Playwright,” setting the scene for what is about to ensue.  Bean is,
simply put … Orson Bean, and that alone is a delight for all who have seen his
many appearances on To Tell The Truth, and other classic TV game shows.

All the actors affect English accents, with the exception of Bean who is essentially
playing himself. Mills and French are close to perfect, though some of the cast are
rather less successful, something which may prove a distraction to audience
members who are sticklers for correct dialects.

Joe Olivieri has directed Alice Sit-By-the-Fire with attention to both performance
and pacing, and the result is a swiftly moving and often uproariously funny
production.  Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz has made excellent use of
Pacific Resident Theatre’s smaller 40 seat space, giving us an elegant London living
room full of Amy’s unfinished projects. (“Every art decoration I try goes out (of style)
before I have time to finish it.”) Rudy Dillon has designed elegant early 20th
century costumes.  Keith Stevenson’s sound design and Dan Weingarten’s lighting
design are first rate.

With its large subscriber base, Pacific Resident Theatre is guaranteed a long and
successful run with Alice Sit-By-the-Fire. In addition, with the glowing reviews and
positive word-of-mouth this fine and funny production is likely to inspire, there will
surely be numerous “visitors” keeping the seats full well into the New Year.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd, Venice.

–Steven Stanley
December 29, 2007
Photo: Keith Stevenson

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