Thanks to the rapid proliferation of grant money from a variety of directions, countless low-budget touring companies devoted to specialized pockets of the theater audience are making a go of it for the first time. The New York-based Labor Theater, here last night and tonight at the George Menay Center for Labor Studies in Montgomery County, is such a group.
Their "Ragged Trousered Philanthropists," a "music hall adaptation" of Robert Tressel's grim 1906 novel about the futility of working-class existence in a small English city, is one of three repertory works with which they are touring this year.
The idea is rooted in the 18th-century antic angst of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" and all its sweet and sour offspring down to Sondheim's "Sweeny Todd." In this case it's starvation, murder-suicide and municipal corruption told to the tune of light comedy.
And for such touring companies, there is yet another compelling reason for such a format, for it fits into the mode referred to these days as the "pocket musical." In "Philanthropists" 19 characters can be played by 10 players, props are minimal and only a piano is needed for backup.
The Labor Theater's performers handle these quick switches with grace and occasional wit. Keith Walters is particularly adroit in jumping in a moment from playing one of the saddest victims of the system to enacting a cynical, profiteering capitalist.
Yet for all their efforts, the two-act vehicle is essentially static. The inherent pathos of the material is hardly developed. When the characters step into their monologues, their words are more bathos than pathos, and the impending doom that faces most fails to gather force with the action.
In the program booklet the claim is made that the Labor Theater is "an audience-oriented group, taking shows to union halls, community centers and wherever people gather." Last night the rather small group of listeners at the Meany Center seemed to be hearing little that was new to them, but at least there was some entertaining spots along the way.