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Timing in 'Sockdology' helps punch lines pop

It's almost an axiom that plays about the theater make terrific theater. Think of "Noises Off," "The Dresser," "The Royal Family," "The Producers." To the list, add Jeffrey Hatcher's "Sockdology." Especially when it has a production as sharp and true and darkly funny as the one director Doug Warner brought to Camelot Theatre in Talent for a Friday night opening.

It's April 14, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln is attending a production of the play "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. But our focus is not on the doomed president, who never appears.

The focus is on Laura Keene (Livia Genise), a formidable grande dame of the stage who has been called (but never to her face) "The Duchess." Laura will be making her 1,000th appearance in "Our American Cousin," but she really wants to go to Cincinnati and do "Camille." And the focus is on the ragtag band of lorn souls with whom the Duchess shares the stage.

The play's title comes from 19th century slang for a knockout punch, a "sockdologizer." I found it a strange and confusing title, but when you see the play, it resonates on several levels.

Now, since the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a famed actor from a famous acting family, other actors — all actors — are fair game as suspects in a conspiracy. And the second act will become almost a police procedural, with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Don Matthews) as bad cop/interlocutor.

The first act is madcap/melodrama, with just a little frisson of menace here and there, since after all we all know what's going to happen. Laura has spent a life as a headliner in the theater with, evidently, little to show. Genise portrays her with depths that deepen as we go.

Leading man Harry Hawk (Dylan Cope) is gay. Character actor John Mathews (Michael Myer) is a Confederacy sympathizer. Ingenue wannabe Jeannie Gourley (Jessica Price) has actually met with Booth in an exchange aimed at enhancing her career but having nothing to do with politics. Her father, T.C., (Paul Rees Jones) recovers and covets a flag drenched in Lincoln's blood. Mrs. Muzzy (a very funny Priscilla Quinby) delivers deadpan laugh lines while chomping a cigar.

Almost any one of these characterizations is rich enough to steal a scene, especially Quinby's, and also Brandon Manley's as a bumpkin laborer who shows an unexpected side. I suspect this is due in part to Warner's concept of the play, and in addition that this is one of those productions blessed by the theater gods with seemingly perfect casting.

I should declare that Warner was assisted by dramaturg Richard Moeschl, the Mail Tribune's Arts and Entertainment editor who oversees the Tempo section, who did not discuss the play with me in any depth.

The first act is driven by the jealousies and machinations of these all-too-human characters, first on the stage, then backstage when the fateful performance is on. Each character has depth, and an arc. None is a cliché. Each has a dominant nature we think we know, and contrasting shadings we begin to glimpse. Actors must turn on a dime as the play veers from melodrama and farce to drama and tragedy, and they do.

When scenes are set up properly and humming along, and the timing is this sharp, lines turn out funnier than they are on the page. Reminded that the president is coming, a frustrated Laura snaps, "I didn't vote for him."

There's a goofy play on Booth's famous cry of "Sic semper tyrannis" ("thus always to tyrants") recast by the straight-laced Stanton as "Send for McManus."

The laugh line of the play-within-the play, though, belongs to Harry. "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out old gal, you sockdologizing old man trap."

As the line comes up again and again in Stanton's questioning, it's always funny, but there's also the pathos of realizing it's the last thing Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

It's always interesting to see how a stage play accomplishes the turnaround when we go backstage. The transition here was seamless. Suddenly we're backstage seeing the actors onstage through a scrim, a stagehand hauling on ropes. Then shots ring out. And the stage we're watching from the back turns blood red and glows and beats like a heart. It is a highly theatrical, horrifying moment.

The tension ratchets in the second act as Stanton seeks a conspiracy, and each actor has, in fact, something to hide. There's still comedy in the tragedy, and vice versa. The best of these actors has his dark side, and even the overbearing Stanton is not without his humanity.

In the end, there is a conspiracy of sorts. It's in the ragged, mysterious bonds between these desperate theater people. The result is a richly rewarding evening of theater.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Livia Genise plays Laura Keene in Camelot Theatre’s production of “Sockdology.”