Tuesdays at the Theatre Guild

Flying under the radar, the venerable Portland Civic Theatre Guild keeps some civilized traditions alive (and raises money for new things)

Walking into The Sanctuary on Northeast Sandy Boulevard for one of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s monthly play readings is a little like walking into a town meeting in Miss Jane Marple’s St. Mary Mead, minus the lurking murderer. Cookies and coffee and no doubt some tea are being served. A clubby camaraderie inhabits the proceedings, an understated festive air. Little histories are here: Most everyone seems to know, or at least recognize, most everyone else, and while the attendees might be mostly outside the target parameters of corporate marketing metrics, they are active and inquisitive and in good humor, and no doubt value common sense. A feeling persists of something civilized and basically good, a small pleasure: a bulwark on this past Tuesday morning, barely more than a day after the evil of the Las Vegas massacre, against the bleakness of the outside world.

As with St. Mary Mead and its inhabitants, it would be unwise to underestimate this crowd and its proceedings. They may not be in the market for the latest exhibitions from the seething swamps of contemporary performance art, but they know their theater (many of them have been, and some continue to be, on the stage), and the pleasures to be had in communing with a style of playfulness that might not be the height of fashion but has not lost its charm. It’s quite easy, and enjoyable, to slip into the spirit of the thing.

The gathering of the Guild: active and involved.

On Tuesday the object of their affections was I Ought To Be in Pictures, the 1979 sentimental comedy by Neil Simon, who is considered something of a ghost of theater past these days but not so many decades ago was the toast of Broadway, and the movies, too, a figure who so dominated the Broadway real estate that younger writers and audiences rebelled against virtually everything about him – his jokiness, his eagerness to please, his devotion to craftsmanship, his middlebrow-ness, his upper-middle-class-ness, his self-congratulatory sentimentality, his sometimes clueless maleness, his unseemly success, his belief that maybe the theater was entertainment and not so much art.

Well, those battles have been fought, and now, maybe, it’s possible to consider Simon’s plays the way we think of other works from a specific style and period: like Restoration comedies, for instance, in which the artificiality and reliance on coincidence were part of the joke. It’s all artificial, from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Mamet to Shepard to Lynn Nottage to Lisa Kron to Suzan-Lori Parks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and beyond. That’s why they’re called “plays,” not “life.”

Simon was a crown prince in a golden age of American entertainment, especially comedy, when Jewish writers and performers, calling on their recent-immigrant family status and their urban identities and the awful astonishment of having emerged on the other side of the Holocaust, recast the American idea of humor in their own image: Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May. It was a takeover of sorts of the WASPish mainstream, and it cracked the culture open for further change.

I Ought To Be in Pictures is a three-person play, and after a welcome that was partly taking care of business and partly standup comedy act by Guild president Adair Chappell, a musical-theater favorite who is known to a certain generation of Portlanders as the Peter Pan, the show’s three actors came onstage: Jeanne Rogers as Steffy, a Hollywood makeup artist who’s in a semi-satisfactory relationship with a seriously blocked screenwriter; Clyde FT Small as Herb, the leaning-to-nebbish screenwriter who beneath a shakily suave exterior is deeply insecure; and Amber Schein as Libby, the 19-year-old daughter from Brooklyn who Herb abandoned when she was 3, and who shows up precociously on his West Hollywood doorstep and announces that (a) she’s going to break into show business, and (b) he’s going to help her do it. That, as they say, is the setup, and then things happen.

Jeanne Rogers (left), Amber Schein, and Clyde FT Small in Portland Civic Theatre Guild’s “I Ought To Be in Pictures.”

The reading begins, with Scott Rogers, the director, reading the stage directions from stage right. When he reads the script’s introductory description of Steffy as a woman approaching 40 and “still attractive,” a few titters arise from the audience: most are somewhere to the north of 60, and “approaching 40” sounds like the bloom of youth.

The performance proceeds swiftly, with affable generosity if not the nuance that a fully rehearsed production would bring, but with plenty enough of it for this well-experienced audience to fill in the blanks. It’s a relationship play, and although the two women are the more interesting characters, the play’s arc is mainly about the emotional distress poor Herb undergoes (and from which, eventually, he is liberated). If it all feels like an extended situation comedy, that’s a description, not a dismissal.

As in most good situational comedy, the elements invite conflict and even anguish, and it is the writer’s task to leave those unsettling aspects rattling just a little unnervingly in the back of the audience’s brains while unleashing the laughter of recognition. A man who has abandoned his family is then, in unlikely fashion, reunited with and forgiven by the grown daughter he hasn’t seen since she was 3 years old. It seems a wish-fulfillment, in a sense, a forgiving of one’s self more than being forgiven by the abandoned, and the thought occurs: Might this at some level be a displaced survivor guilt, the conflicted feelings of an American Jew who, by virtue of being in the United States rather than in Europe, escaped the horrors of the Holocaust that befell his kindreds, and a wish to reconnect with those who survived under so much harsher situations? In the case of Simon and other post-World War II American Jewish entertainers, one often laughed to stave off the alternative.

The performance ends, satisfactorily, and the audience applauses, and then begins to file out to what’s turned out to be a bright and beautiful October day. A few linger in the lobby, chatting afterwards, extending just a little longer the pleasure of the experience. Jane Marple or no Jane Marple, there’s no mystery in that.

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The Portland Civic Theatre Guild, which for many theatergoers plays a very under-the-radar role, is the thriving extension of a community theater company that once dominated the Portland scene. PCT began in the 1920s and stayed in business until the early 1990s, and when it finally shut its doors the Guild, which had been established as an independent support group in 1958 and immediately established its play-reading series, just kept going, doing much more than simply keeping the memory alive.

“We do a lot more than just put on these readings, you know,” Chappell – whose mother, Isabella Chappell, was for many years a legendary leader of PCT – mentions in the lobby before the show. “We’re very involved. We raise money and we give a lot of it away.”

Indeed, the Guild, which includes 60 active members (men were added to what had been an all-women’s membership in 2004), has a healthy grants program, and has given more than $130,000 in awards to theater companies and individual artists. At June’s Drammy Awards ceremony it announced gifts of $3,000 to the Portland Actors Conservatory for computer and sound system upgrades, $2,000 to DaVinci Middle School drama teacher Nicole Accuardi to buy a digital piano for the school’s program, and $5,000 to actor Samson Syharath to travel to Laos to study dance, myths, history, traditional instruments and songs, and bring his knowledge back to town.

Coming up next, on Nov. 6 and 7, is On the Verge, the hit fantasy by onetime Portlander Eric Overmyer, with Alana Byington directing a solid cast of Vana O’Brien, Danielle Weathers, Holly Wigmore, and Mark Schwahn.

December’s show is Holiday Radio Hour! by the entertaining Willamette Radio Workshop. January brings a new play, Matthew Miller’s I Love You, Who Are You, which will debut as part of the city’s Fertile Ground festival of new works. February: Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton; March: Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius; April: E.M. Lewis’s Song of Extension. The season concludes in May with the traditional A Musical Treat, devised and directed by Chappell.

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Performances are at The Sanctuary, Triangle Productions’ home space, 1785 N.E. Sandy Boulevard. Ticket and schedule details here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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