WHAT "The Prompter"
WHEN | WHERE Through June 16, Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor
INFO $40-$125; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
BOTTOM LINE Entertaining look at theatrical stalwarts who never get an ounce of credit.
Theatrical lore is rich with stories of actors unable to remember lines — remember the fuss when Al Pacino relied on multiple monitors for David Mamet's "China Doll"? But the practice of people feeding lines to struggling performers dates back to Shakespeare. They’re called prompters.
In his engaging autobiographical comedy "The Prompter" at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater, Wade Dooley, who once did the job himself, tells the story from his side of the curtain. The playwright-actor stars quite admirably in his own play, which looks back at his job with a veteran actress returning to the stage after 40 years.
She's called Irene Young, played by four-time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh with delicious, scene-stealing relish. But everything you read about the play notes that it's factually based, which brings out my inner sleuth. Dooley has said in interviews that Young is a composite of actors he’s worked with, but he’s not naming names. Oh, he does drop some — Mary Martin, Elaine Stritch — but the 30-something Jackson Heights resident is too young to have been on their payrolls.
So while the inspiration for the character remains a mystery, it’s fun to ponder as you watch Dooley and Young struggle to get through the show, an update of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," called simply "Earnest!" Dooley is a fine performer (he's been touring with "Jersey Boys"), but as a playwright, he slips up at times. Presented as a memory play, the work gets a little muddled with an overload of voiceovers representing, among others, the rest of the "Earnest!" cast, his boyfriend, his (very annoying) mother. A number of humorous lines fall flat, and Young's speeches on lack of roles for women "of an age" get a little preachy.
Still, give credit to Bay Street for taking a chance on this new work, which first appeared at its New Works festival last summer. Staged with customary high standards by artistic director Scott Schwartz, the play unfolds on Kevin Depinet's simple backstage set, with fun costuming (Young goes from Birkenstocks to ballgown) by Tracy Christensen.
It should come as no shock that the relationship between actress and prompter is rocky, especially when technology fails them — Young goes full-blown diva when a loose battery prevents her from hearing her lines. But then both are simply doing their jobs, and watching them negotiate boundaries makes for an entertaining glimpse of behind-the-scenes theater. Dooley no doubt speaks for all prompters when he reflects on whether Young would thank him if she won a Tony. Not a chance, he concludes. "I was a secret."