Word for Word, known for turning literature into theatre, has done another stellar job of bringing master storyteller Alan Bennett’s novella SMUT: An Unseemly Story to hilarious life at the Z Below Theatre in San Francisco. This not-to-be-missed first production of Word for Word’s 2017 Season is subtitled “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and it explores the uncomfortable and tragicomic gap between people’s public appearance and their private desires in the tenderest and most surprising of ways. Bennett is one of England’s wittiest writers and is known for authoring a range of plays (The History Boys (Tony 2006), Kafka’s Dick, The Wind in The Willows,The Madness of George III) and screenplays for film (The Lady in The Van, A Private Function, Prick Up Your Ears, and The Madness of King George). Bennett exposes a particularly English form of secrecy in this story of the unexpected in otherwise ordinary lives.
Mrs. Donaldson, charmingly played by Word for Word Charter Member Nancy Shelby, is a recently and moderately bereaved widow who is left with far less income than she anticipated. To supplement her income, she finds employment as a simulated patient for medical students which leads to another source of income: renting out her spare room to medical students Laura (the delightfully athletic Rosie Hallett) and Andy (an adventurous and amorous Andre Amarotico). Mrs. D soon discovers that in spite of her middle-class sensibilities and the objections of her daughter Gwen (the multi-faceted Delia McDougall), she enjoys her hospital role-playing and the unexpected entertainment provided by her tenants.
The perfectly cast ensemble in multiple roles includes Word for Word Charter Member Patricia Silver as the more experienced (she’ll have you know) medical patient Violet Beckinsale; Soren Oliver as the imposing professor Dr. Duncan Ballantyne who, smitten with Mrs. Donaldson, takes us on an intricate journey to overcome his inherently shy nature. Practicing his wooing on the model skeleton is nothing short of hilarious. Phil Wong is a lesson in himself as the student Roswell, head in clipboard, unable to maintain eye contact with the patients. Robert Parsons surprises us behind a microphone crooning one of the show-stopping numbers. And Charter Member Delia MacDougall in her role as Delia is the picture of fear and frustration stressed to the point of a stuttering near mute.
Director Amy Kossow keeps the pace moving and the comic moments coming in this first of two novella-sized stories in SMUT. Jeff Rowlings’ set transitions from English parlor to medical theatre to bedroom to karaoke club in the blink of an eye and Drew Yerys’ Sound Design couldn’t be better to convey the sensuous nature of the show. Aided by Callie Floor’s careful eye for Costume Design, SMUT is one of those truly enjoyable pieces of theatre that enables us to laugh and celebrate the very details of daily life that are so recognizably human!
SMUT runs through June 11 at Z Below, Z Space’s second venue, at 470 Florida St. SF Wednesday-Thursday 7 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm
Tickets: $40-$60 with no additional fees. Tickets: 415-626-0453 or at www.zspace.org
Linda Ayres-Frederick May 26, 2017