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Stage Preview: Stuart Pankin returns to Saint Vincent for lively 'Lend Me a Tenor'

Saturday, July 05, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

First things first -- Father Tom is on the mend. That's Father Tom Devereux, of course, founder, producer and essential spirit of the Saint Vincent College Summer Theatre.

Now in its 35th season and long one of the most capable professional companies in Western Pennsylvania, Saint Vincent is distinctively companionable, with its welcoming atmosphere (usually including Father Tom out front, directing cars) and regular post-show cabaret, offering free food, drink and piano. It's a place to which good actors, often from Pittsburgh, like to return, even after they've moved on to larger theater centers -- all due to the atmosphere established and tended by the generous and canny Father Tom.

"Lend Me a Tenor"

Where: Saint Vincent College Summer Theatre, college campus, Route 30, Unity Township.

When: Through July 26; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8:10 p.m.; July 9, 13, and 16 at 2:10 p.m.

Tickets: $13-$17.50 (discounts available); 724-537-8900.


If you haven't heard the bad news, Father Tom suffered two strokes in mid-May. But the good news is that he emerged from initial rehab with his mind and spirit bright. He still has some paralysis, but he's now undergoing a second course of rehab with hopes of regaining all his faculties.

In the meantime, Saint Vincent continues on course under the direction of Joe Reilly, its longtime stage director, with its usual company of solid actors. For the current show, that includes alumnus Stuart Pankin -- best known from the ACE-winning "Not Necessarily the News," 1982-88 -- and his actress wife, Joy. They had already agreed to do this second show of the season, but, as Pankin says, "Now that Father's not well, it's a good time to be here and pitch in."

More about Pankin later. First the play.

Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" typifies Saint Vincent's work. One of the most popular modern farces, it's no piece of cake to do, so it appeals both to audiences who like to laugh and actors who welcome a technical challenge.

Set in 1934, when even young women habitually wore gloves, the story concerns a one-night gala performance of "Otello" by the Cleveland Grand Opera, featuring Tito Morelli, a star Italian tenor. But Morelli arrives so sick he can't even chase skirts. When he is inadvertently drugged, disaster looms, and the plot permutations, mistaken identities and cross-purposes that result give every door on the set (there are six) a thorough workout. When Saint Vincent last did "Tenor" 11 years ago, Pankin played Saunders, the harried impresario. But this time he takes on the choicer role of Morelli, nicknamed Il Stupendo. Joe Warik plays the conniving Saunders, and the central role of the wimpy young man, Max, who turns out to be the hero, falls to Phil Winters.

If you know Winters from his regular work at Saint Vincent, Playhouse Rep or elsewhere, this is a surprise. A burly comic actor, he is not an obvious choice for the youthful comic-romantic lead. But he creates an appealing, puppy-dog youthfulness, suppressing his usual irony in favor of a diffidence that awakens slowly to the amatory and heroic possibilities of the story.

Warik plays Saunders as a blustering cartoon, which is fine in general, and Pankin milks Tito's considerable opportunities for physical humor, especially an encyclopedia's worth of double and triple takes.

The women aren't quite up to the men, mainly because they're younger and less experienced. Annie Reilly plays Maggie, Max's love interest, who yearns for a romantic fling before settling down; Stephanie Williams is the gorgeous seductress, Diana; and Patricia Reilly is the officious, intrusive chairman of the opera board. Though capable, none has much comic panache -- they're tentative, as though under wraps. Joy Pankin has more pizzazz in the small role of the angry Maria, Morelli's long-suffering wife, and Jarrod DiGiorgi supplies plenty as a buttinsky bellhop.

On Tuesday night, the generally well-attended Saint Vincent's had the smallest audience I've ever seen there, probably because the Fourth of July week is traditionally slow. As a result, the show felt slack -- it could be like stirring cold oatmeal trying to get the usual laughs. But the laughs are there, and this is too solid a cast not to pick up the pace and make the show gallop as it should.

Pankin reflects
Over the traditional hot dogs, popcorn and beer at the post-show cabaret, Stuart Pankin made it clear how deeply his roots go at Saint Vincent. Joy was a student at Seton Hill College who worked on the summer theater season in 1969. She went on to grad school at New York's Columbia University, where she met Stuart, and they worked together at Saint Vincent for the first time in 1972. They were married there in 1974, with Father Tom officiating and Joe Reilly as best man.

"I stayed every summer, 1972-77," said Pankin. Then they moved to California. He returned to Saint Vincent a few times in the early '80s; the first show I saw him in was "The Imaginary Invalid," about 1984. In those years, when Saint Vincent did perhaps six shows a summer, Pankin remembers some pretty serious plays, such as "The Life and Death of Joe Egg" and "All the King's Men." In recent years, box-office realities have dictated fewer shows and more comedies and mysteries.

"It ain't so bad to do funny stuff," deadpanned Pankin, who is, after all, a comic specialist, with his stubby body, plastic face and great timing. He was last at Saint Vincent in 1992, when they did "Tenor" the first time. But in 2001, Joy came back to act, and he came for a two-week visit, which reminded him how much he loved it. So when Father Tom and Reilly proposed "Tenor," they both signed on. It was an added appeal that their 16-year-old son, Andy, would also have a job on campus.

As Pankin says, funny stuff "ain't so bad." For one thing, there's the technical challenge. Morelli spends much of Act 1 lying on a bed in full view, supposedly dead, and although Pankin concedes the appeal of "getting to sleep through most of the First Act," it's actually not easy having to contend with sweat dribbling into one ear or an uncontrollable twitch or a cough. He calls it "an interesting problem in meditation."

Look up "working actor" in Webster's, and you could well find Pankin defining the term. Consider the Internet Movie Database, which credits him with 31 movies, from "Scavenger Hunt" (1979) to "Now You Know" (2002), and about 70 TV appearances, including lots of repeats -- twice each on "Barney Miller," "CHiPs," "Dharma & Greg," "Hooperman," "Matt Houston," "Night Court" and "San Pedro Beach Bums," among others.

There are also lots of voice-overs and cartoons, not to mention infomercials. Most recently, Pankin did his second IMAX movie, "Misadventures in 3-D," coming out this fall with what he calls "unbelievable computer-generated effects." But it's films like "Striptease" and "Fatal Attraction" that his fans mainly recall, along with the inspired skit comedy of "Not Necessarily the News."

Lately, he's been doing quite a bit of theater in L.A. -- and playing a lot of golf. Even an experienced character actor has his dry periods. There have been some independent films, and he might be following his comic Morelli with the real thing, an upcoming movie in Italy.

In a crazy business, Saint Vincent is an oasis. And in expressing his admiration for the theater and for Father Tom, Stuart revealed just why Father Tom was always out front, directing cars. It allowed him to greet everyone and get to know the clientele -- an example of his instinctive marketing smarts. But before that, he had been ensconced in the box office, where he was in the habit of giving free tickets to everyone he knew, which was everyone. So it was an act of theatrical self-preservation to move him outside.

Everyone hopes he'll be back soon.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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