The Chicago premiere of Chris Woodley’s British farce “Tommy on Top” at the Pride Arts Center feels more like “Tommy in the Middle.” Is it a romantic comedy masquerading as a farce or a farce that has been toned down to make it more palatable to an America audience?
Tommy Miller (an appropriately charismatic and handsome Ryan Cason) is a closeted Hollywood actor whose body of work usually includes showing off his body as the heartthrob in light-hearted teen comedies. He gets a surprising Oscar nomination for best actor after he appears in a low-budget independent film in which he appears against type.
His musical theater-quoting boyfriend George (an understated, but sensitive Patrick Gosney) is supportive, but understandably frustrated by what the nomination means: no out actor has ever won a best actor Oscar and if Tommy wants to take home the gold, he and George will need to keep their relationship firmly locked in the closet (at least until post-awards season).
When: Through July 17
Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
They have been put up in a posh hotel room for the week leading up to the awards ceremony by Tommy’s acerbic agent, Eddie (an appropriately crass, bitter and over-the-top Brian Boller), who has arranged for a series of interviews designed to cement Tommy’s Oscar win.
Some chaos enters the pair’s little Oscar love nest with the arrival of Tommy’s brash and often-inebriated sister Molly (Theresa Liebhart). A social media influencer when she isn’t drinking, Molly is hoping to add a few million followers to her brand by documenting the days leading up to her brother’s big day.
Things are further set askew with the arrival of a rival agent, Judy (an all-business Sandra Franco). Judy has learned that a gossip blogger named Kiki (an appropriately venomous Blythe Inanna) might have some dirt on Tommy and she is offering to do damage control if Tommy agrees to be her new client.
Jay Espano is without question a talented director who has done wonders in his inaugural season as Pride Arts artistic director to elevate the quality of work the company presents. His set design of an elegant and well-appointed Hollywood hotel is the kind you might expect to see in a Cole Porter comedy at the Goodman Theatre.
British farce is not always an easy sell to an American audience. You can probably count on one hand the number of such productions that have resonated here (“The Play That Goes Wrong” and “One Man, Two Guvnors” are two that immediately come to mind). So, it’s perhaps not surprising that Espano seems to be hesitant to guide his cast to lean fully into the farcical parts of Woodley’s script.
Cason and Gosney share much chemistry and their relationship is grounded in reality. Their early scenes as they explore the challenges they face as a couple are endearing. It’s a nice set-up, and you wait patiently for things to go off the rails as they usually do in farces, but such things never fully materialize.
Oh, the key elements of farce are mostly there: multiple cases of mistaken or threatened identity, fast action, and, of course, physical comedy. Jack Mcelroy’s fight choreography in particular is certainly within the ballpark of farce.
However, with the exception of Eddie and Kiki, we are missing the over-the-top performances associated with the genre. The end result is two plays competing with themselves for our attention: a biting social commentary on Hollywood and a light-hearted, romantic comedy.
The show’s production values are high, several performances are engaging and the overall message of “owning your own truth” is without a doubt a powerful one.
Unfortunately, as a farce, “Tommy on Top” is anything but over-the-top.