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REVIEW: THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR — Laguna Playhouse

It's a stunning little symphony of shtick performed to exhausting perfection on a precisely coordinated par with anything from comedy’s golden age.


OCTOBER 22, 2023—LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE


Laguna Playhouse presents, the third show of its 2023-24 season, a transfer from North Coast Rep, a World Premiere Production Limited Engagement: “The Angel Next Door,” by Paul Slade Smith, adapted from 1924’s “Play at the Castle” by Ferenc Molnár, and directed by Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director David Ellenstein, a vividly meta show with self-referential asides ever building on and folding into events on stage.


Set in 1948, in a Newport, Rhode Island's mansion, the show is centered on the frenzied professional and romantic offstage doings among five upper crust, la-di-da theater types, and they are offset by the deadest-pan delivery, thickest-accented house maid ever fictionalized from somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Europe.


Barbara E. Robertson, Taubert Nadalini and James Newcomb in the Laguna Playhouse production of The Angel Next Door.

Capturing the sheer joy, sophistication, and wit of those early screwball comedies, playwright Smith has cheekily and efficiently modernized most of the lines and patter for clearer audience sensibilities. The result is an unforgettable cast of characters navigating romance, misunderstandings, and comical situations, setting the stage for riotous disaster. It’s a perfect storm of comedic chaos, swept away by irresistible charm and rapid-fire banter, guaranteeing a delightful evening of rollercoaster twists and turns, and leaving you breathless with laughter.


The play has five sets of doors screaming farce, all beckoning to be slammed, and all beautifully designed and dressed by scenic designer Marty Burnett. The lambency is evenly lit and radiant by Matthew Novotny. Character costumes range from dramatic boudoir apparel to suiting to evening wear and are accurate to the characters they depict and well suited towards advancing the plot under the eye of costume designer Elisa Benzoni. But it is the tight pacing and verbal dexterity in which Director Ellenstein and his skilled six-person cast delight.


Elinor Gunn, Thomas Edward Daughtery and Barbara E. Robertson in the Laguna Playhouse production of The Angel Next Door.

Of particular note is Ian Scott’s sound design, which includes a variety of sound effects as well as extended dialogue scenes that must be heard through the wall from the adjoining bedchamber. But it is the tight pacing and verbal dexterity in which Ellenstein and his skilled six-person cast delight.


And while there are far more than a fair showing of knowing winks, nods and flat out fourth wall-breaking declarations to the audience, it’s all very effective: after all, they do so to an audience they simultaneously pretend is not there.


From the very beginning of this world-premiere comedy at North Coast Repertory Theatre, married playwrights Charlotte and Arthur Sanders (Barbara E. Robertson and James Newcomb) regard the New England estate bedroom that is the play’s setting as a theater. For one thing, they’re trying to decide whether the “audience members” to whom they’re playing are the walls of the well-appointed salon behind them or the picture windows looking out on the Atlantic — which happen to be the actual audience.


Erin Noel Grennan, Barbara E. Robertson and James Newcomb in the Laguna Playhouse production of The Angel Next Door.

Furthering this gambit, the hyper-clever Charlotte will stay up all night writing a mini-play designed to untangle the misunderstanding mess that threatens the success of their young protégé novelist, Oliver (Taubert Nadalini). Its performance, staged in what has to be the busiest bedroom on the East Coast, will also determine whether the Sanders couple gets a shot at writing a Broadway hit based on Ollie’s book.


But there is no mystery about the performances here: these are accomplished actors all.

Example: Mr. Daugherty’s Victor Pratt takes a well-known type — the nitwit self-involved actor — and conveys his bumptious combination of ego and eternal confusion not so much through predictable voice and double-takes, but marvelous facial calisthenics and physical gestures.


Ms. Grennan as Olga the maid has quite the unfair advantage with so many laugh lines written to land from her mouth. But Ms. Grennan earns them with a pliant comic, baleful mask of resigned resentment, plus an accent that isn’t quite as severe as Natasha from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, but headed there.


L-R Taubert Nadalini, Erin Noel Grennan, Thomas Edward Daughtery, James Newcomb, Barbara E. Robertson and Elinor Gunn in the Laguna Playhouse production of The Angel Next Door.

The author playwright Paul Slade Smith is also an actor based in Brooklyn, New York. His play, "Unnecessary Farce," winner of nine regional theatre awards, has had over 250 productions throughout the United States and in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Switzerland, Iceland, and Singapore. Mr. Smith has also appeared in the original Broadway casts of "Finding Neverland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the Lincoln Center revival of "My Fair Lady." He has been seen in the national tours of "Wicked" and "The Phantom of the Opera," among others, and at regional theatres including The Goodman, Steppenwolf, American Repertory Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.


The production is directed by David Ellenstein (“Eleanor,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Annabella in July,” – North Coast Rep) and features a cast that includes Thomas Edward Daugherty (“The Ferryman,” New Village Arts) as Victor Pratt, Erin Noel Grennan (“Reckless,” Cincinatti Playhouse) as Olga Molnar, James Newcomb (“The Homecoming, A Christmas Carol,” North Coast Rep) as Arthur Sanders, Elinor Gunn (“Sugar Daddies,” ACT Theatre) as Margot Bell, Barbara E. Robertson (“Queen of the Mist,” Firebrand) as Charlotte Sanders, Taubert Nadalini (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Pacific Resident Theatre) as Oliver Adams, and Noelle Caliguri (“Company,” Coronada Playhouse) as Understudy for Margot Bell.


The Design Team for “The Angel Next Door” features: Scenic Design by Marty Burnett; Lighting Design by Matthew Novotny; Costume Design by Elisa Benzoni; Hair and Wig Design by Peter Herman; Sound Design by Ian Scott; Properties Design by Cindy Rumley. The Production Stage Manager is Vernon Willet.


“The Angel Next Door” opened on Sunday, October 22 and performs through Sunday, November 5 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM; Sundays at 1PM and 5:30PM. No performance on Sunday, November 5th at 5:30PM. Tickets range from $45-84 and can be purchased online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS.




Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report









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