At Laurel Mill Playhouse, 'Brides' wedded to comedy

"Brides of March," which opened at Laurel Mill Playhouse last weekend, has nothing to do with the free spirits who began parading the streets of San Francisco wearing variations of the traditional Western white wedding dress some 13 years ago — an annual March 15 pub crawling event that has spread as far as Japan.

To the contrary, the Main Street little theater's quaint spring show, directed by Pauline Gritchell-Mitchell, pays tribute to John Chapman, a prolific British writer credited with contributing to the establishment of the Whitehall Theatre in London as the home of post-war West End farce.

Published in 1961, Chapman's sophisticated play punned the 15th day of March in the Roman calendar, the Ides of March, as the "Brides of March" those many years ago.

Set in a London suburb, the fast-paced comedy opens in the home of Tony and Sally Scudamore. Well-dressed as an English living room, Laurel resident Rob Allen's set syncs beautifully with a script that requires stylized physical humor and lively chase scenes.

Playhouse newcomer Gritchell-Mitchell's directing expertise shows in the perfectly angled furnishings and seamless staging of the action in such an intimate space, not to mention the depth of the characters delivered by her cast.

The show starts lightly as Playhouse regulars Mark T. Allen and Kathy Wenerick-Bell create compelling chemistry as a stuffed-shirt British war veteran and his culture-shocked American wife. As Tony, Allen exudes quiet warmth the moment the show opens, while Wenerick-Bell's vivacious performance as Sally always pops.

Their good-humored repartee evokes more than laughter and sympathy for the leading characters in Act 1; it reveals a springboard for the show's driving plot — a letter promising Tony a mysterious inheritance from an Arab sheik whose life he saved in North Africa a March 15 during World War II.

Meanwhile, acclimating to England is an eye-opener for Sally, who married Tony under the bright lights of the Big Apple. The chic New Yorker chafes at the British reserve she bumps against in her husband and his family: Tony's brother Ken Scudamore, played by Greg Mangiapane; and his parents, Arthur Scudamore and Mrs. Scudamore, played by Playhouse board members Larry Simmons and Maureen Rogers, of Laurel.

Enter Sally's childhood sweetheart, American air pilot Jack Krasner played by Steve Holland, and Sally quickly sidesteps an obligatory family dinner at the home of the elder Scudamores with Tony for an evening on the town with Jack. Thickening London fog prevents her from making it home, and she spends the night at a hotel. But Tony and his visiting brother Ken, who are both inebriated by night's end, do make it home.

One of the play's prettiest visual snapshots is the moment that Haroun El Bahn, the sheik's emissary played very well by Henri Green, begins to reveal himself to an astonished Tony. The inheritance turns out to be five chaste harem brides who are, of course, tucked in an upstairs bedroom. Refusing such an honor will mean instant death for Tony and the young women at the hands of the formidable emissary who has delivered them to his doorstep.

The theme song from "I Dream of Jeannie" played at intermission aptly characterizes the five eager young harem girls. Emily Bruun as Oleena, Jenna Ross as Sassar, Raquel McRae as Maloo, Kendra Maurer as Rakeesha and Jessica Wieder as Vana are as diverse and lovely as their flowing chiffon costumes. Sending them home is not an immediate option for complicated reasons, and this is the situation that Sally comes home to.

Carleigh Jones, of Laurel, is just plain funny as Mrs. Spencer, and she and Jim Cigno as the van driver and policeman find their bright moments onstage.

The savvy performance of Simmons and Rogers as the Scudamore elders facilitates surprising plot twists that add dimensions to the hilarity. Mangiapane's careful balance of gentility and debauchery as Ken is charmingly believable, as is Holland's portrayal of Sally's dashing ex-flame who is also an upright fellow.

Skillfully delivered, Laurel Mill Playhouse's "Brides of March" is void of thrift store white wedding dresses, Goth brides and space aliens. A classic, tastefully funny script interpreted in genuine farcical fashion, Gritchell-Mitchell's elegant production should be quite suitable for all ages.

"Brides of March" continues through May 6, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 21 (no evening performance) and Sundays, April 29 and May 6, at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $15. Students, 18 and younger; and seniors, 65 and older, pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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