Bah, Humbug

Arizona Rep's 'Inspecting Carol' is a funny but mean-spirited parody of community theater

Tucson audiences can count on Arizona Repertory Theatre for some of the most solidly produced shows around town.

ART's latest, Daniel J. Sullivan's farce Inspecting Carol, is no exception. It's an entertaining night of theatrical comedy that pokes fun at theater itself. David Morden's direction is tight; the technical elements are professional-quality; and the student actors are lively professionals in training.

The reason these student productions are of such consistent quality? Certainly, many talented people are involved in each show. But ART also has regular funding and paid professionals—as part of the University of Arizona, the company has full-time theater faculty working on the shows with the students.

This is not to suggest that the university is flush—the UA has suffered many budget cuts of late. Still, compared to struggling independent theater companies around town, ART's resources seem positively gargantuan.

One cannot help but think about this while watching Inspecting Carol. Sullivan's play is set inside the Soapbox Playhouse, a struggling theater in a "mid-sized city in the Midwest." It's December 1992 (around the time the play was written), and the Soapbox is putting on its annual version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This holiday classic is a rare moneymaker for the company, and this year, the Soapbox desperately needs a success.

Early on, managing director Kevin (Sean Meshew) tells artistic director Zorah (Georgia Harrison) some bad news: The National Endowment for the Arts has suspended the theater's annual grant, pending an "artistic review."

This throws the playhouse into a tizzy. And when an aspiring actor, Wayne (Cody Davis), wanders in hoping for an audition, he is mistaken for an undercover NEA inspector.

This means that Wayne—not, shall we say, the most skilled of actors—is welcomed into the company, and even allowed to make changes to the script. We watch rehearsals of A Christmas Carol evolve from mediocre to awful. Everything is primed for disaster when the real NEA inspector (Kate Nienhauser) shows up.

Much of this is very, very funny. The cast does excellent work portraying a range of characters, from child-star Luther (Paul Thomson), who is getting too big to play Tiny Tim, to an eccentric elderly couple, Dorothy and Sidney (Brenna Wagner and Frank Camp), who lead the actors in strange warm-up exercises. ("Pretend to squeeze a lemon between your buttocks ...")

Still, there's something uncomfortable about watching student actors mocking struggling theater professionals. It comes across as a little mean, almost bullying, for a slick, well-funded production to mock a broke, ramshackle effort. The satire starts to be too grim as the show goes on. And go on, it does—the play is four acts long.

This is not to say that the mockery isn't often hilarious. The play's climax is a horrendous run-through of A Christmas Carol. As an audience, we get to see only highlights—the best (i.e., the worst) moments.

There's an art to performing something that's meant to be terrible. Everything needs to be on point, or the production risks making the same kinds of mistakes it is mocking. So praise is due not only to the cast, but also to the technical staff, including scenic designer Peter Beudert and technical director Sarah Schniepp, for making all of the "mistakes" play flawlessly—the scenery falls apart, and technical effects happen at the wrong time. In fact, Inspecting Carol is a bit of an ode to those who toil, often unappreciated, behind the scenes.

Playwright Sullivan drew on several sources for the play, including his own experiences in the theater. He spent much of his career as artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, and he also served on an NEA grant-application panel. So when managing-director Kevin finally breaks and screams at pretentious lead-actor Larry (Robert Don Mower), it feels like a fantasy moment for theater managers everywhere.

The play is also loosely inspired by Nikolai Gogol's 1836 play, The Government Inspector. In this dark Russian farce, corrupt local officials mistake a newcomer in town for a government inspector. But the targets in Gogol's play are crooked politicians. The targets of Inspecting Carol's satire are well-meaning regional theater folk, as well as the NEA. Not exactly terrible villains, unless you are in favor of cutting public support for the arts.

So the unrelenting mockery gets strained. Surely any play that satirizes theater should also make some acknowledgement of theater's value. But no such moment ever comes. The theater professionals are all deluded, incompetent or selfish, and the NEA is a laughable institution that awards money to politically correct endeavors rather than quality art.

Sullivan obviously means all of this mockery in a good humor. In fact, dramaturg Jessica Stennett writes in the program that "Inspecting Carol became a vehicle for arts advocacy and awareness." That's a nice thought—but it's not the only way Inspecting Carol can be interpreted.

If Sullivan had balanced his critiques with some moments of humanity or reflections on the value of art, this positive interpretation might be more viable. Instead, the show runs the risk of coming off as a mean-spirited in-joke. And ART's production—funny as it is—often plays that way.