Comedy generally requires a victim: Lucy tortures Ricky, Oscar and Felix torment each other, Sheldon traumatizes everyone. Pie-throwing, eye-gouging, slipping on banana peels. We laugh at the other fellow’s misfortune. Hey, it isn’t happening to us.
In Act II Playhouse’s two-character offering, Stephen Temperly’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, determining the victim is tricky. It would seem to be the title character. Given Temperly’s slight, predictable script, might it be the audience? What about the actors? They have to do the heavy lifting.
Jenkins (played here by April Woodall) was an early-20th century socialite whose ghastly operatic skills translated into sold-out performances, big record sales, and a cult following in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s among those with a vicious sense of humor or defective hearing.
Temperly’s script tells her story with a repetitive formula: a) Jenkins eviscerates an aria; b) her accompanist Cosme McMoon (Sonny Leo) weeps; c) Jenkins skirts reality; d) McMoon drops jaw (once so prolonged, it appeared he was yawning).
Informing these redundant gags with variety requires actors of some genius, and the enormously talented Woodall and Leo largely succeed, under artistic director Tony Braithwaite’s crisp and deft direction.
Their chemistry is engaging. Woodall’s vocal butchery is utterly brilliant. Perhaps you’ve seen the 2016 film where Meryl Streep played the eponymous role. Woodall’s vocal gymnastics surpass the Hollywood legend’s. Her ability to parallel a melody while concurrently fleeing it is uncanny. Her delightfully dysfunctional syncopations and crippled codas are inspired.
These sustain the evening, along with the audience rapport Leo establishes. His earthy sophistication echoes screen legend Oscar Levant. As narrator he could employ more eye contact, but his comic instincts spontaneously turn a number of throwaway lines into moments of unanticipated humor, of which more are needed.
The show never entirely escapes Temperly’s one-joke structure, and the author’s U-turn denouement is especially jarring. Suddenly the farce becomes a drama. This is clear emotional manipulation, shamefully reinforced with a flawless Jenkins fantasy performance, allowing us to “hear” her soul when she sings.
Wait! Weren’t they just chasing each other around the piano?
But we are entertained. Friday’s preview audience laughed heartily. Curiously, the show suggests a sitcom one minute, a silent movie the next (via the social diva’s melodramatic behaviors). Sometimes, both simultaneously.
There are contrivances, and action sometimes gets a bit too broad: Leo wipes away tears of anxiety on the piano shawl. (Paging Nathan Lane.) Does Woodall need to salute three times — with both hands — after “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” at Carnegie Hall?
Seana Benz and Jimmy Johansmeyer create a hilarious series of outlandish costumes for the Carnegie sequence, which Woodall showcases in rapid succession. Parris Bradley’s scenic work turns Act II’s smallish stage into a spacious Manhattan salon/rehearsal space initially and then suggests the famous bright background of the Carnegie stage.
What recommends the play? The work of the artists, masking many of the script’s flaws, and the charm of Act II Playhouse, one of the area’s most inviting venues. For those seeking lighter fare for the holidays, this could be the ticket.
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Through Jan. 5 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave, Ambler. Tickets start at $35. Information at 215-654-0200, act2.org.