For any farce to work, the stakes must be extremely high. In People’s Light & Theatre Company’s Hatchetman, there’s a race to meet deadline in the offices of Putts, a glossy golf magazine. The magazine is minutes away from going to press and the writers are in a collective frenzy. None is more harried than the easily flappable Carter (Pete Pryor), who pulls his hair out and slams his keyboard with mounting fury.
What most of the characters want even more than to make deadline is to hold on to their jobs—not life or death but certainly something that nearly everyone in the audience can relate to. They also want one another’s bodies, a goal that often takes precedence over their occupational concerns.
Director Steve Umberger’s cast is first rate, but the talent isn’t enough to overcome David Wiltse’s tedious first act. The endless parade of golf jokes are about as successful as Tiger Wood’s marriage. Wiltse’s dialogue is dominated by words with sexual connotations, which the cast dutifully delivers with the proper sense of leering and innuendo. “There’s no satisfaction when things are premature,” the editor Sam (an enticing Mary Elizabeth Scallen) suggests with menacing allure.
Thankfully, Hatchetman’s second act is a considerable improvement. The magazine has gone to press and the staff can focus all their time and energy on the pursuit of romance (“the beauty of working for a monthly magazine is that nothing gets accomplished for the first three weeks” Carter happily informs us). The prime object of the men’s pursuit is Temple (Mary McCool) a woman noted for her “youth and tarnished good looks.” The shallowly drawn character isn’t worthy of McCool’s considerable talents but she has fun with it, performing Temple as an ambitious sex kitten whose job-advancement strategy consists of bending over and seductively wiggling her butt at every male within eyeshot (the short, skin-tight skirts provided by costume designer Marla J. Jurglanis enhance the effect considerably).
The production hits its stride in the play’s final 30 manic minutes as the cast members display their adeptness at physical comedy. Performing at an accelerated pace, actors hurtle themselves through doorways, fly over desks and dance on swiveling chairs (the office furniture and doors in James F. Pyne’s set get a workout). In the most memorable bits of comic business, Andrew Kane (who this season established himself as one of Philly’s top actors and portrays the nerdy columnist Johnson) attempts to pick a pen off the floor with a golf club down his pants (not something to try at home) while Julia Stroup (who plays the verbally and visually challenged writer Jane) wanders blindly through the hallways with a wastepaper basket clumsily attached to her foot.
The lone figure of calm amidst the mounting chaos is Otis (the wily veteran actor Tom Teti). A constant presence in the office, Otis inherited the publication from his father. Always in search of the right word to express his sentiments, Teti portrays Otis as a suave if slightly befuddled elderly gentleman incapable of finding his way around either the office or a sentence. Looking resplendent in an array of pastel-colored sport coats and bow ties (Jurglanis’ costumes are one of the production’s most entertaining elements), Teti’s charming performance brings a welcome air of tranquility to the otherwise chaotic proceedings.
In an area with an abundance of great actors, Hatchetman joins the list of mediocre plays transformed into seeming masterpieces by an exceptional ensemble. Hatchetman isn’t going to be mistaken for Shakespeare (though its conclusion is reminiscent of several Shakespearean comedies), but under Umberger’s capable direction, a terrific cast makes Wiltse’s middling farce far more enjoyable than it would otherwise be.
Through July 17. People’s Light & Theatre Company, Steinbright Stage. 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. 610.644.3500. peopleslight.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2