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Little Theatre Revives ‘Teahouse’

1950s comedy delivers still-relevant message.

Initially, the playwright for Little Theatre of Alexandria’s new production was trying to send a cautionary message, about America flexing its post-war muscle as a superpower.

When John Patrick was adapting “The Teahouse of the August Moon” for Broadway in 1953, the Korean War was just winding down, and Patrick used a good deal of comedy in the play to drive his point home.

The production of the play, adapted from a novel by Verne Sneider, that opened this weekend at the Little Theatre of Alexandria delivers Patrick’s message clearly and still manages to get a lot of laughs.

In "Teahouse," America's naïveté in matters of empire were lightly contrasted with the experience and wisdom of the native peoples of an occupied area following World War II. In this case, it was the Prefecture of Okinawa, the southernmost of the Japanese islands that was to be brought into the modern era with all the blessings of democracy.

The strength of LTA’s production is the performance of Brandon DeGroat as Sakini, the Okinawan interpreter who explains everything to the audience, consistently addressed as "Lovely ladies. Kind gentlemen." At the same time, Sakini manipulates often oblivious American officers into doing what his neighbors wish, rather than what is called for in the voluminous "Plan B," sent down from the Pentagon.

DeGroat is a gifted comedian, delivering his material with an infectious sense of delight and executing some nifty physical bits as well. When the American Col. Wainwright Purdy criticizes him for letting his socks fall down, he walks off on his hands with feet and socks inverted.

AMERICAN OFFICERS in this prodcution aren’t quite as effective although Philip Baedecker is at times wonderfully clueless as the bombastic Purdy, who tells subordinates wanting to learn the local language that there is "No need - we won the war!"

James Howard is quite funny as Capt. McLean, who sees the occupation as the perfect opportunity to have some soil in which to plant his favorite seeds.

A great deal of the play revolves around the efforts of Capt. Fisby, in charge of the "recovery" of a village. He is supposed to indoctrinate the local population in the ways of democracy, stimulate an economy and build a school - in the shape of the Pentagon, no less. When the locals democratically chose a teahouse rather than a school and find economic success with the production of the local brandy, things get a bit confused.

Fisby is played by Bob Scott, who overdoes the comic bits in some of the scenes but is really quite good in the funniest scene in Act I. In it, he shows a gradually increasing perplexity, as the jeep he is supposed to take to the village is loaded with ever more baggage and passengers.

The scene is finally stolen by a mother goat and her kid. Perhaps the old stage adage needs to be amended to read "never appear opposite babies, dogs or goats."

A MARVELOUS TEAHOUSE has been devised by set deisgners John Downing and Bill Glickbarg. The building can be assembled and disassembled on stage without undulydelaying activities.

The rest of the set pieces required for the three-act show appear to be designed for easy scene changes but, at least early in the run, scene changes take considerable time, adding to an already lengthy play, which runs to nearly three hours.

In their program notes, director Roland Branford Gomez and his producers make the point that they selected this play for production long before events in Iraq made its message of post-war American "recovery" operations seem so topical. Here, the message of respect for diversity and the lessons of cultural heritage is served up with a generous helping of self-deprecatory humor.