“The Ladykillers” won’t die. The classic 1955 British comedy (featuring Alec Guinness and others) inspired the 2004 movie of the same name (starring Tom Hanks and directed by The Coen Brothers) as well as a 2011 stage adaptation, written by Graham Linehan, that is now being presented by the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown.
Carl Wallnau — CSC’s artistic director, who directs and stars in this production — writes in the program that the original movie was a kind of “fable” of post-World War II England, with different characters representing different aspects of that society. And while I don’t doubt that it true, that element of the play doesn’t really resonate for a modern American audience.
I also felt that this “The Ladykillers,” though amusing at times, was not madcap enough to succeed as the madcap comedy it aspires to be.
Wallnau plays Prof. Marcus, who rents a room from Mrs. Wilberforce (Colleen Smith Wallnau, who is Carl Wallnau’s wife), ostensibly to practice classical music with his small ensemble. Only he’s not really a professor, or a musician: He’s a criminal, and he and his four equally non-musical, equally nefarious associates are using the room to plot and pull off a robbery at a nearby railroad station. They tell Mrs. Wilberforce they need privacy to do their practicing, and play a vinyl record of classical music to make it seem like they are really doing it.
Prof. Marcus is able to pass himself off to Mrs. Wilberforce as a sophisticate. And she is so taken with him that she doesn’t seem to notice that the other four make a very unlikely quartet of artistes. One Round (Connor McCrea) is a big, dumb lug. Harry Robinson (Nick Bettens) is addicted to pills. Major Courtney (David Edwards) likes women’s clothing. And Louis Harvey (David Sitler) is a glowering menace.
She persuades them to perform for her friends. In one of the play’s funniest bits, Prof. Marcus knows he and his confederates can’t fake it, and so they just pretend they know what they’re doing and strike random notes in an atonal cacophony, hoping Mrs. Wilberforce’s friends will “buy it” as an avant-garde composition. They do. “Being fooled by art is one of the primary pleasures afforded to the middle class,” Prof. Marcus wryly notes.
There is some nice work here by set designer Matthew Imhoff, in creating a set that not only looks convincingly like a 1950s English flat, but lets the director shift easily from an inside to an outside perspective. And the actors can’t be faulted. But Linehan simply doesn’t create a story that I found it possible to take much interest in, or even have his characters explain their criminal plan very well. (The actual theft happens offstage.)
McCrea, as One Round, generates the most laughs, with his slow delivery and blank, uncomprehending stare. But there are too many tired attempts at humor, with characters repeatedly getting hit in the face by a spinning blackboard, or tripping on Prof. Marcus’ long scarf, or being frightened by a loud, unseen parrot (due to a rare condition, he can’t be exposed to light, and so his cage must be covered at all times).
And while doddering Mrs. Wilberforce does end up on top — I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that, since this is a comedy, so you know she will — she doesn’t foil the criminals as much as she stays out of the way while they foil themselves. Which they have no problem doing.
The Centenary Stage Company presents “The Ladykillers” at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 5. Visit centenarystageco.org.
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