Theatre Review: Cambria gets “Finishing Touches”

February 2, 2010


So . . . it’s perplexing to contemplate that only three decades later the 1970s may already represent a bygone era in modern theatre. Jean Kerr’s 1973 play Finishing Touches is most certainly a dinosaur from that long ago time that now, for some reason, is roaming the boards of the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria through the end of February.

That’s not to say that the honest, indeed earnest, performances by the seven eager-to-please actors who are riding the dinosaur aren’t worth seeing. You just have to wonder “Why?” Why this play, why now, why waste perfectly good talent on this archaic vehicle?

It doesn’t help that audiences have evolved into expecting Avatar-like spectacles and exuberant Lion King-like entertainments in their live theatre as well as their movie-going. We have come to expect constant visual stimulation, not the quiet musings of a mother in curlers and flannels worrying about the fact that “people settle for things,” or a father caught in a moral dilemma worrying about cups not matching their saucers (dishware, meals, and “multiplying Santa mugs” play a large part in this play).

Engaging conversations between adults and their offspring, however, can’t save the playwright’s reflections on modern married life, male midlife crises and youthful indiscretions that are way-way-way out-of-date for modern audiences. Although director Anita Schwaber has updated some of the outmoded references, life passed this play and these characters by long ago.

The actors make much of what little they have to work with – especially the young actors who sparkle in small roles. Rick Johnson and Blake Spiller as the aforementioned offspring are both naturals onstage, with an instinct and self-awareness that will serve them well in future roles. Unabashed instinct also helps Lauren Moore and Kari Wastun portray the two young women who light the sparks – one unknowingly and the other knowing full well – that set the plot in motion and keep it rolling. As actors, each of them tells the story using more than just the playwright’s words.

Unfortunately it isn’t until the third act that we finally get to see some genuine touches of humanity that Kerr struggles throughout the play to reveal in the adult characters. Then, strangely, the revelation doesn’t come from father Jeff (David Norum) or mother Katy (Kelli Rodda), who carry the narrative burden through the first two acts, but from a neighbor, Fred (Craig Brooke).

Painted by Kerr as an adolescent middle-aged Lothario, Fred nonetheless is able to help Jeff and Katy come to terms with their loss of secret dreams. Brooke as Fred loosens up toward the end of the play, becoming the catalyst that creates, with Rodda, the production’s most poignant scene: one human being reaching out to another.

Rodda does a yeoman’s job in her role as the family’s rock, demonstrating a stamina and fortitude every mother (and actor) can envy. Norum brings a comic sensibility and physicality to his role reminiscent of actor Kevin Kline.

Contemporary it’s not, convincing as a morality play it’s not. Finishing Touches, while showcasing some fine actors, is best viewed as a relic of another age – destined, it can only be hoped, to be packed up and placed in protracted storage following a final, vigorous run on the Cambria stage.

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, no credits are listed in the program for costuming the production, but the sock monkey bathrobe and slippers worn by Kelli Rodda as Katy Cooper in the first act put the finishing touches on Finishing Touches.

There’s still time to catch the show, which runs through Feb. 28. Visit the CalCoastNews Community Event Calendar for details.