Review: 'Perfect Nonsense' at Hartford Stage

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams, and Arnie Burton Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

  • Tara Kennedy, Chief Connecticut Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle/ATCA 

“What makes Wodehouse wonderful… isn't the preposterous lunacy of the plots… it is his prose. At the core of all of his stories is the surprise of language at its most flexible, fresh and fun." – Charlotte Jones, the Guardian

Folks, I am an Anglophile. Like ridiculous. Point for scale: I have a poster of the London underground hanging in my office. So, when hearing that British humo(u)r is going to be at the theater, I look forward to seeing it.  Fortunately, Hartford Stage is sponsoring the North American premiere of “Perfect Nonsense,” an adaptation by Robert and David Goodale of the P. G. Wodehouse comic novel, “The Code of the Woosters,” published in 1938. This is the first stage production with the blessing of the Wodehouse estate; the other stage production was a musical by Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber who also used “The Code of the Woosters” as their book. The musical enjoyed a long run in the West End in 1996-97, but ran only 73 performances on Broadway in late 2001.

Bumbling socialite Bertie Wooster and his droll valet, Jeeves, are the beloved characters from P. G. Wodehouse’s farcical fiction starting the 1910s. What makes Wodehouse so special is his use of language; his delightful use of the English language was so adept that he is quoted no fewer than 1,750 times in the Oxford English Dictionary, where his illustrative sentences demonstrate his delight for the vernacular. The works of P.G. Wodehouse also provide the first time we see 23 words in the OED, including fifty-fifty (1913), cuppa (1925), and right-ho (1936). Heck, even the name Jeeves is defined as a “a valet or butler especially of model behavior” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and was even a short-lived search engine: Remember Ask Jeeves?  

Wooster and Jeeves are as familiar to the English as Holmes and Watson, but not necessarily to American audiences. Unfortunately, that is an issue with this production; there is a presumption that the audience is already familiar with these characters; when the curtain rises, with Bertie is sitting in his chair onstage, you sense that you should know the story already. Given that these characters were introduced to the world decades before this novel was written, that is exactly the intent of the story line: You know who Wooster is and what’s about to happen. With British audiences, this would be true; not so much the case stateside.

But that doesn’t mean that the play isn’t entertaining. The three performers do a fantastic job creating organized chaos on stage. Chandler Williams is a lanky, lumbering Wooster, making the most of his skillful, comic physicality. I did have trouble understanding him at times, which is a shame, because Wodehouse’s words are where the true wit lies. Arnie Burton is the perfect stoic Jeeves, with the marvelous ability to be as madcap as his boss when he plays other characters. At one point, he plays two characters at once with incredible flourish; it is one of the best moments of the show. Eddie Korbich as Seppings, another valet from another household, joins in on the fun of recreating the zaniness, playing a whole host of characters, including Roderick Spode, an overly tall Hitler lookalike, which is hilarious since he’s rolled in on a stepladder.  

Alice Powers – whose original design comes to the Hartford Stage’s production – is as whimsical as the farce onstage. Examples include a bicycle that pedals the scenery around on a turntable, and paintings that change with a turn of a crank. The set design adds another layer onto the fun.

For fans of British farce and the Wodehouse pair, this will be a lovely treat.   For those who are less familiar and planning to see the show, you might pop into your local library and check out a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Cast and Credits, Theater Information

Jeeves & Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense,” A New Play from the Works of P.G. Wodehouse by the Goodale Brothers. Directed by Sean Foley. Runs Mar. 21 – Apr. 20, 2019 with an approximate running time of 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission. Starring Chandler Williams, Arnie Burton, and Eddie Korbich.