The charm of the second-rate shouldn’t be snubbed. Plays that comfortably do their job of gently stirring the emotions while raising a couple worthy thoughts are rare enough in a theatrical marketplace jam-packed with third- and fourth-rate goods. British playwright Terence Rattigan was a master of the second-rate form—so much so that his work is inevitably either dismissed (usually by academics) or glorified (by matinee-loving Anglophiles). Broadway producers, who wouldn’t recognize the first-rate if it came wrapped in a Ben Brantley ribbon, must dream of a latter-day Rattigan to restore the sophisticated suburban ideal of a theater that smartly entertains without ruffling anyone’s commute back home.
Anto Howard aspires to the Rattigan model in his play Scattergood, a bittersweet drama that pads its pathos so that not even its forlorn characters need worry much about their quiet suffering. Set in the snug precincts of Dublin’s Trinity College, the action centers on the eponymous Professor Scattergood (Brian Murray), an eccentric 60-year-old scholar of medieval romances who tests his pet theories on love and honor using two of his students. The crackpot idea of putting chivalrous pieties into practice emerges when Miss Regan (Tari Signor), a brash American redhead, takes a kindly interest in a stammering classmate, Brendan Hillard (T.R. Knight), a compulsive reader and social cripple not unlike Scattergood himself.
The play has a cozy, lulling first half that inspires nothing more than the wish for a blanket and a nice couch to stretch out on. Trouble arises, however, in the second half, when Howard tries to turn his quaint tale into a full-throttle psychodrama. After being coached by Scattergood on the ways of winning a young lady’s heart, Brendan begins fabricating his reported amorous adventures with Miss Regan. He wants to stave off the humiliating sense of his ineptitude, yet he also has an unconscious need to satisfy something unresolved in his celibate mentor, who has never recovered from an erotic devastation that happened early in his teaching career. As the plot crashes toward its confrontational crescendo, the story (quickly losing its paltry credibility) sours. Clearly, Howard has not yet mastered Rattigan’s knack of baking a prosaic cake with a satisfyingly complex aftertaste.
Still, the MCC production, smoothly directed by Doug Hughes, has a bookish grace that makes the botched ending somehow forgivable. Murray’s Scattergood is a rumpled, wine-guzzling conservative who has sublimated his passion into an academic discipline. As he broods on the retrograde subjects of honor and value, he can’t help lip-synching along to the Frank Sinatra songs playing continually in the background. Though Signor lends Miss Regan’s pertness a bit too much exuberance, Knight finds just the right note of quashed appeal for a guy who’s an outsider even in the nerdiest of literature departments. Together, Murray and Knight help Scattergood flickeringly realize its estimable second-rate ambitions.
The 10 short pieces that make up Booty Candy, a bill written and directed by Robert O’Hara, provide its young ensemble with a rambunctious set of acting exercises. If the production doesn’t offer its audience much more than the chance to witness these actors in hyperactive skits, it tries its best to keep everyone in the house grinning—no matter how ludicrously low it must sink to do so.
Take the opening act. A young black mother and her young son (a rotating cast of actors, not listed by character, is employed) have one of those awkward exchanges about sex that results in a naturally occurring question: Why does mom refer to her boy’s penis as booty candy? “I don’t know, I guess it’s the Candy to the Booty!” she replies, in a typical instance of O’Hara’s wit.
The friendly audience lapped this humor up with raucous enthusiasm. Especially well received was Dreamin’ in Church, a one-act about a reverend preaching on the perils of rumormongering while he comes out of the closet as a transvestite with a penchant for stiletto heels and blond wigs. Another bit features two brothers-in-law agreeing to get it on—each making graphically clear what he will allow the other to do beforehand. After a few bar conversations, the not exactly news-making point becomes clear: Sex between men is infinitely easier to talk about than feelings.
O’Hara’s reputation for innovative playwriting perhaps wasn’t shown to best effect in a silly segment featuring a three-way phone conversation (handled by a single actress) about a mother who wants to name her newborn baby “Genitalia.” The comedy hits its mark when it accurately observes crass behavior. Too often, however, the work foists a lewd silliness onto its characters that seems like code for vague social issues the author wants to indirectly address.
The final piece, The Beauty in Queens, for example, tries to skewer August Wilson’s Broadway monopoly on black theater. The setup involves a family being offered a real estate deal they can’t refuse by Mr. Shubert. Mr. Wilson, who has been previously hogging up all the houses in the neighborhood, has generously consented to be the super. Characteristically, the writing takes more pleasure in its dopey cleverness than it gives. But there’s no denying that the actors, as well as a good chunk of the audience, are having an uproarious time with this parody of the most cartoonish of stereotypes.