Playhouse production piles on theater humor

If you go

What: “Inspecting Carol”

Where: The Youngstown Playhouse

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Dec. 17 and 18; and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19.

Tickets: Call 330-788-8739

Place:Youngstown Playhouse

Glenwood Ave., Youngstown

By Milan Paurich

Despite a 25-year-plus career in local community theater as actor, director and writer, Brian Lee had never directed a show at the Youngstown Playhouse before. Until now. “Inspecting Carol,” Daniel L. Sullivan’s Christmas-themed comedy, marks Lee’s Playhouse directing debut. In a recent interview, Lee discussed what the experience was like and why laughter is the best holiday present of all.

Q. “Inspecting Carol” has been described as a cross between Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Could you give a brief synopsis of the plot for readers who might not be familiar with the play?

A. I also think it has a bit of (Michael Frayn’s) “Noises Off” in it as well. Basically, the show is about a struggling fictional Midwestern theater company that’s been turned down for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. To see if they qualify, the NEA is sending an inspector to see whether they’re putting out a quality product — in this case, it’s their annual cash cow, “A Christmas Carol.” The grant could give them the $30,000 they need to continue operating. Unfortunately, they’re the craziest, most dysfunctional group of actors ever put on a stage, and everything that could go wrong does. It’s one of the funniest scripts I’ve read in a long time. And if it makes me laugh out loud while reading it, it’ll be even funnier on stage.

Q. Do you feel any added pressure following in the heels of two brand-name Playhouse box-office bonanzas like “Chicago” and “Macbeth” with a play that’s not particularly well-known in this area?

A. Not at all. I feel that I’m in good company with those wonderful productions. I believe we’re all part of the Playhouse’s comeback, and I’m happy to contribute in any way. This is really an exciting time for the arts in the Youngstown area.

Q. Who’s appearing in “Carol”?

A. I was blessed with a who’s-who of the best comedic actors around. First the ladies: Molly Galano, Connie Cassidy, Dawn Rogers and Terri Wilkes. And the gentlemen: Jason Green, Dave Wolford, Rick Haldi, Johnny R. Herbert, Tom O’Donnell and Terry Shears. Plus, two wonderful young men, Jacob Nash and Kai Rogers. I can’t go wrong.

Q. What’s the most challenging thing about directing a show in a space as large as the Playhouse’s main stage?

A. Comedy can be a special challenge because of it’s intimacy. Sometimes a larger space loses some of that. But, so far, the chemistry of my wonderful actors is reading so well that I don’t see any problem. What helps is that we’re all old friends, and I’ve done shows with everyone before. That camaraderie leaks onto the stage, and I’m hoping the audience will have as much fun as we’re having.

Q. As someone who’s both acted and directed in your 25-year community-theater career, which role do you feel most comfortable in?

A. Recently I enjoyed playing Fortunato in the Victorian Players’ Halloween Poe show. It was a very physically demanding role, right up to breaking my arm during the closing performance (laughs). But “comfortable”? I would have to say Dr. Watson in “Sherlock Holmes’ Final Adventure” at the Vic. Now that covered the whole gamut of stage acting. Directing provides a different type of satisfaction, though. Watching the entire show come together is great. So in answer to your question, I think that I enjoy both (disciplines) equally.

Q. What’s next on your plate — as director or actor?

A. Well, right now I’m going to let my arm heal and turn to writing for a bit. I have an idea for a new script that I started last year, and now seems like a good time to dust it off and get to work. It’s a psychological thriller about an all-night interrogation in a police precinct between a serial killer and a cop who’s made it his obsession to catch him: a two-character one-act that turns into an intense mental chess game. I haven’t written a drama for years, so it should be fun. Until then, I’m ready to give the best Christmas gift there is: laughter.

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