The Politics of Punching Down: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”

Jennifer Ellis, Robert St. Laurence*, Kate Klika, Phil Tayler, Jared Troilo*, Lori L’Italien, Aimee Doherty*, Todd McNeel, Jr., Leigh Barrett*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak
Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Music Direction by Matthew Stern
Choreography by Larry Sousa

April 15 – May 22, 2022
Lyric Stage Company
40 Clarendon St
Boston, MA

Critique by Maegan Bergeron-Clearwood

BOSTON, Mass. — Laughter is never neutral. Whiteness is never neutral. A comedy of manners might stake the claim that farce is some great, humanizing equalizer, but humor is inherently directional: someone is always doing the laughing, and something, or someone, is always being laughed at.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won the Tony in 2014 for Best Musical, is vague about its directionality. Ostensibly, we’re laughing at the hypocritical mores of upper crust Edwardian England, but we’re just as often prompted to laugh at, for example, effeminate men, hyper-feminine women, or the “exotic” peoples suffering under the thumb of colonialism offstage.

Spiro Veloudos, director of the Lyric Stage Company production, addresses these complications in his program note: “Our team’s approach in this production aims to send up the supremacist and imperialistic standards of Edwardian English culture… Our belief is that the comedy of this show comes at the expense of these corrupt ideals, and not at the expense of those who were and are greatly disadvantaged by these same ideals.”

Veloudos outlines an admirable directorial goal, to be sure, but one that is swiftly undermined by an embarrassingly fundamental misstep: the cast is almost entirely white.

How can the show not be at the expense of those who were “greatly disadvantaged” by racism and colonialism when those very people aren’t being given the power to tell the jokes? Casting and production politics matter, such that I wonder whether the director’s note wasn’t a last-minute apologetic add-on to avoid this very kind of critical response, rather than an outline of conceptual production goals.

This lack of thematic orientation is evident not only in casting, but in design and staging as well. Costumes, by Elisabetta Polito, are at times bold and even avant garde, but at others slapdash and drab. Anachronistic design choices are employed seemingly at whim, sometimes amusingly and others distractingly. The tone is also inconsistent: some of the comedic moments are pure camp, particularly those that take advantage of projection work by Johnathan Carr, but the majority of the staging fails to pop.

In general, there’s a rough-and-tumble DIY feel to some of the production choices, prompting me to wonder whether there was an early, half-baked concept of framing the show as a group of traveling players pulling costumes and props from a trunk. In its finished form, however, the design choices simply feel unfinished.

This lack of unification comes across in the performances as well, although not without plenty of deliciously schmaltzy effort on the part of individual actors. Neil A. Casey, who plays every member of the doomed D’Ysquith family, is clearly having the time of his life, and it’s hard not to guffaw as he spins through his many parts, each somehow sillier than the last.

Todd McNeel, Jr., Lori L’Italien, Jennifer Ellis*, Leigh Barrett*, Neil A Casey*, Phil Tayler, Kate Klika, Aimee Doherty*, Robert St. Laurence*, Karen Murphy*, Jared Troilo*. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Jared Troilo as Monty, the titular Gentleman, plays off of competing love interests Aimee Doherty as Sibella and Jennifer Ellis as Phoebe, all of whom clearly have the charisma and stamina for their respective roles — but they simply aren’t given enough to do onstage, and without this sense of clear direction, their comedic efforts often fall flat.

Most telling is the ensemble. With a story this slapstick and macabre, I would expect the chorus members to gnaw their way through the scenery, but instead, everyone just seemed confused, as if they didn’t know who they were or what they were doing in any given scene.

All stories are political, including and perhaps especially comedies. Sometimes laughter is reason enough to tell a story, but this production of Gentleman’s Guide is a case study in how flimsy politics can undermine good storytelling. Sure, I had my share of belly laughs at the theater this Sunday, but the vague hollowness of the production had me wonder with each and every chuckle — to what end?

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