When the revered British author, playwright and newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse died three years ago at 80, one of his many eulogists mentioned that "charm" was never one of his favorite things. Waterhouse was suspicious of it. "An absurd quality," he once wrote.
I would argue that the wry and dry Waterhouse slipped no small measure of allure into "Mr. and Mrs. Nobody," his remake of the late 19th century play "The Diary of a Nobody," by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith, and his own take on that still-in-print work, "Mrs. Pooter's Diary." Charm? Arguably. Appeal? Definitely.
"Mr. and Mrs. Nobody," billed as a "Victorian Entertainment," now onstage at the New Phoenix Theatre, is basically a two-hander (there is a maid and a "factotum," a servant of many talents) starring Josephine Hogan and Richard Lambert, as Charles and Carrie Pooter. The year is 1880 or so. Charlie is a hard-working senior clerk for a banking-related firm. Carrie is a housewife concerned with doilies and appearances.
The Pooters have moved, and they are trying to impress a stuffy gaggle of neighbors, friends, bosses and co-workers. A son, Lupin, is working by day but chasing ladies at night, as sons do. There is much social insecurity.
We learn all of this from "dueling diaries," so to speak - Charlie at his desk, announcing the day's events as he remembers them, and Carrie, the chatting Carrie, describing differently the same comings and goings (there are friends, the Cummings and the Goings, who do just that).
In truth, the telling and the re-enacting can get tedious. We hear the nearby train often, the maid is introduced maybe one too many times, and the mundane details of an average day multiply and stifle.
Yet, "Mr. and Mrs. Nobody" is ingenious in many ways. Hogan and Lambert are marvelous bumblers. The Pooters are prone to gaffes whether at home or away, and the best of intentions go constantly awry. They tumble about, burst into ridiculous song, tangle with innocent looking props, dignity temporarily doused. They are hapless and hilarious.
Hogan is ditzy and wise at once, and exercises often her stock-in-trade: the "withering aside." She has that unerring sense of what is goofy and how to make it work. Lambert is a foolish and likable Charlie, a doltish, decent family guy in over his head. This is a great comic character supremely well-played.
Claire Spangelthal and Guy ?De Federici are cast members; ?Dyan Burlingame's set is warm ?and welcoming, aided by Chris Cavanaugh's lighting designs; ?and pianist Steven Borowski has written some original music ?and accompanies, with Tyler ?Borden on cello. The story's originators, the Grossmith Brothers, ?were Gilbert & Sullivan regulars; Borowski's music reminds one of those operettas, and Lambert's ?Charlie even warbles a snippet ?from "The Pirates of Penzance." So, there are surprisingly jaunty moments.
Keith Waterhouse's son, Robert, directs his father's play, and who better to do so? Excellent work. The wit is intact, it remains perceptive despite its age, and once you get by the endless prattle, and despite the playwright's best efforts to diffuse, the charm of "Mr. and Mrs. Nobody" saves the night.