'Inspecting Carol' falls flat, through no fault of its actors

The players in the Rep's holiday reprisal of a skit about a struggling non-profit theatre company give it all they've got, but they can't make up for bad writing.
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(l-r) Chris Ensweiler, Gretchen Krich, Michael Winters and Reginald André Jackson in Inspecting Carol at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The players in the Rep's holiday reprisal of a skit about a struggling non-profit theatre company give it all they've got, but they can't make up for bad writing.

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve seen a production of A Christmas Carol. Or maybe I’m just a Scrooge. Or maybe – no actually – Inspecting Carol is a well-intentioned but ultimately failed attempt to lighten the load of Christmas-themed theatrical fare.

Conceived and written in 1991 by former Rep Artistic Director Daniel Sullivan and actors from what was then the Seattle Repertory Theatre Resident Company, Inspecting Carol is a behind-the-scenes farce about a financially-strapped third-rate theater company struggling to put on its annual, woeful production of A Christmas Carol. Rehearsals come to a full stop when an out-of-town actor shows up to audition for the production and is mistaken by the troupe’s director for an evaluator from the National Endowment for the Arts.

As Inspecting Carol opens, everything about The Soapbox Theater’s Christmas Carol is going wrong. The sets are falling apart, the costumes are smelly and don’t fit, the egomaniac who plays Scrooge is trying to rewrite the play (the previous year he performed his part entirely in Spanish) and the newly hired black actor — the director’s feeble attempt at a multicultural cast — can’t get anyone to help him rehearse his lines. Worst of all, the company is on the verge of collapse (it’s dangerously close to losing its NEA funding) and only managed to secure half of their expected subscribers — the company’s bread and butter.

“Director” Zorah Bloch is on the verge of a breakdown when an untalented would-be actor named Wayne Wellacre shows up. She assumes he’s the NEA inspector in disguise and decides to allow him not only to join the cast, but to make ridiculous changes to Dickens’ script. Eventually the real NEA evaluator appears to watch the disaster of a production. 

There’s no question the basic premise of Inspecting Carol is funny. Watching the backstage antics of theater folk can be hilarious — think Michael Frayn’s Noises Off — with romantic goings-on, the clash of egocentric personalities and peculiar warm up practices. But Inspecting Carol can’t sustain the merriment and, in short order, it becomes tedious.

To pull off a farce like this requires great finesse, in the writing and the acting. Inspecting Carol falls so far short in the first instance that even a talented cast like the one assembled by Rep director Jerry Manning can’t sustain the two and a half hours that Inspecting Carol consumes. The play is essentially an extended skit, albeit one with some very amusing one-liners, which is exactly how it started out when Sullivan and company created it. Sullivan would have been well advised to retain it in that form; watching cartoon-like characters in a ludicrous situation is entertaining for just so long except in the most skillful hands and, as writers, Sullivan and his actors were far from that.

The biggest disappointment in this production of Inspecting Carol is that the cast tears up the scenery (sometimes literally) with their energy. From Gretchen Krich’s histrionic Zorah to Ian Bell’s Larry Vauxhall (Scrooge), Chris Ensweiler’s Phil Hewitt (Cratchit), Stephen Hando’s Wayne and, most of all, Peggy Gannon’s M.J. McCann (stage manager), the actors try their best to make us care about the plight of their unidimensional characters. But with such flimsy material to work with, the best they can do is evoke the occasional guffaw, at least from this reviewer.

To be fair, many in the opening night audience roared almost non-stop. And the show’s first-rate production values are delightful, everything we’ve come to expect from The Rep with Manning’s adept staging, Carey Wong’s inspired sets, Robert J. Aguilar’s dazzling lighting effects and Kathy Hunt’s imaginative costumes. But in considering whether to reprise Inspecting Carol, Manning would have done well to take to heart one of the show’s most memorable lines. “Writers write and actors act.”

That’s probably the best way to sum up the basic problem with Inspecting Carol which, despite the best efforts of everyone associated with this production, is ultimately more ho-hum than ho-ho.  

If you go: Inspecting Carol, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through December 23. Tickets $15-80 and are available at the box office, by phone 206-443-2222 or toll-free at 877-900-9285, or online at www.seattlerep.org.


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