Review: THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR at North Coast Repertory

Footlights-loving comedy delights in Solana Beach

By: Sep. 19, 2023
Review: THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR at North Coast Repertory

North Coast Repertory and playwright Paul Slade Smith appear to have formed a match made in comedic heaven. Two of Smith’s previous plays have been mounted at the Solana Beach company, and the company commissioned Smith to create a new work to kick off NCR’s 42nd season. That play, THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR, directed by Artistic Director David Ellenstein, is a kick and a hoot. Maybe that makes it a kick-oot.

Adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s PLAY AT THE CASTLE, THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR basks in the craft of old-time theater-making, 1940s style. A husband-and-wife playwriting team enter the room, talking to each other about how this experience would go “if this were a play,’ and the theatrical meta references start to flow like a warm shower on a frigid evening: too many doors, where’s the fourth wall, explaining who people are and where they came from, establishing the scene. On and on it goes, not exactly with the greatest amount of subtelty, but it’s delightful nonetheless. Smith provides an on-stage stand-in for the audience, a maid with a Russian (maybe?) accent named Olga who is portrayed by a scene-pilfering Erin Noel Grennan. Olga repeatedly sneers, “theater people,” but by evening’s end, she’ll be won over. As will the rest of us.

It's 1948 and the aforementioned playwrighting team of Arthur and Charlotte Sanders (James Newcomb and Barbara E. Robertson) arrive at a seaside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island along with bright-eyed novelist Oliver Adams (Taubert Nadalini) whose about-to-be-published book, The Angel Next Door, they hope to adapt into a Broadway play. The book is a 300-page ode to Oliver’s inamorata, the actress Margot Bell (Elinor Gunn), who is also staying in this mansion, in the room adjacent to Oliver’s. Only a connecting door separates the lovebirds. The Sanders’ plan is to give the young couple a happy evening together, ink Margot to act in the play version, and make all concerned happy and wealthy.

But hitches, there are several.

Oliver and Margot have only met in person once, and they have been carrying on a sorta kinda romance through letters ever since. He’s head over tails smitten with the woman he believes to be a modest, chaste… well, a living angel. She doesn’t know the book exists, and Oliver won’t sign the contract until she reads it.

And whether she returns his affections or not, Margot is not entirely the paragon to demureness that Oliver envisions her to be. In fact, she’s at this mansion to perform in a concert with Victor Pratt (Thomas Edward Daugherty), a dim-witted lothario and  self-described “Broadway’s greatest baritone.” Margot had a fling with Pratt previously and he wouldn’t mind reigniting the flame. The walls in this mansion are thin, and when Oliver, Charlotte and Arthur hear what’s going on between Victor and the not-so-angelic Angel next door, well, mayhem and misery ensue. Shrewd Charlotte figures she can fix everything in a manner that only a wordsmith can. Through it all, Olga the maid shuttles through, delivering food, libations and strategic exhortations of “You crazy!” to those who deserve it. Which is everyone.

Make no mistake, all of these characters are screwball comedy tropes who Smith has laced with dollops of contemporary self-awareness. The theatrical inside baseball of the proceedings could easily get warring, but Ellenstein is careful not to overcook it. The actors are game for gusto, but they’re also terrific. Newcomb’s sardonic, “all-is-lost” suffused Arthur is, at times, a vocal dead ringer for Nathan Lane while Daugherty’s dopey Don Juan is channeling about four different Kevin Kline roles (Here’s wondering whether Kline and Lane would cancel each other out if they ever took the stage together in a comedy).

As the play’s engineer/ringmaster, Robertson delivers plenty of solid girl Friday chutzpah. Gunn’s Margot is a late entry to the party, but she knows how to bring some salt to the ingenue role (The actress, by the by, is unrecognizable from her work as a musical Ariel at the recent Antaeus Company’s rift on THE TEMPEST. Talented lady!) And with her cockeyed glances and expert comic timing, Grennan’s Olga  is the cherry on top of this sundae.

Molnar’s THE GUARDSMAN and THE PLAY’S THE THING are constantly staged. With any luck, this THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR will start lighting up playhouses as well. North Coast Rep does it up smartly.

THE ANGEL NEXT DOOR plays through October 7 at North Coast Rep, 987 Lomas Santa Fe, Suite D., Solana Beach.

Photo of Barbara E. Robertson, Elinor Gunn, James Newcomb and Erin Noel Grennan by Aaron Rumley

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