Second Star Productions has gone retro, reaching back to an era when Broadway celebrated warmhearted eccentricity and charming innocents who outsmart those who would control them. Director Jane B. Wingard has also tapped into the more recent past to reunite one of the area's best comic duos for "The Curious Savage," now onstage at the Bowie Playhouse.
A heartwarming comedy by John Patrick, "The Curious Savage" premiered in 1950. It's not as accomplished or as famous as Patrick's other award-winning plays ("The Teahouse of the August Moon") and films ("Three Coins in the Fountain"), but it quickly seems quite familiar.
In fact, it's a perfect blend of two classics: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You," about an extended family of eccentrics, and Mary Chase's "Harvey," about a charming innocent whose best friend is a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. "Savage" opened soon after "Harvey" concluded its five-year Broadway run and was probably intended to capitalize on the vacuum left when James Stewart and the rabbit hopped off to Hollywood to make the movie. This time, the wide-eyed innocent is a widow with a stuffed teddy bear for a best friend.
Ethel Savage wants to use her husband's fortune to help other people fulfill their dreams. Her grown, greedy stepchildren have other ideas and commit her to a genteel sanitarium. But Ethel, proving you actually can take it with you, has converted the $10 million into negotiable bonds, a little pile of paper. A merry battle of wills ensues as the nasty heirs try to force her to turn over the documents.
The sanitarium is home to a happy band of lovable misfits who become Ethel's new family and help her outsmart her foes, even as they are about to utilize the latest drugs of dreaded modern science to take control of Ethel's mind, a replay of the climax in "Harvey."
Like an old Packard, this play takes a long while to rev up to speed, and the pacing of Act One is listless at times; but once it finally reaches cruising speed in Act Two, it's a peppy ride. Steady throughout is Second Star newcomer Kathryn E. Smith, who perfectly embodies Ethel and possesses a natural ease onstage, combined with a lively talent. Her Ethel is multilayered and blithe but with an iron will and not above experiencing a little fear.
Things take off whenever Ethel's stepkids show up. Two of them are played by Edward Kuhl and Heather Tuckfield, last seen together leaving audiences limp with laughter exactly one year ago on this stage in "Moon Over Buffalo." They each possess hair-trigger, impeccable comic timing and a remarkable ability to appear perfectly serious while doing the most ridiculous things.
Kuhl is doing his best Claude Rains impression as a smarmy, grasping senator while Tuckfield is a devious, exasperated socialite, each wonderfully over the top as hapless villains. In one delicious moment, after Ethel has sent the senator on a wild goose chase to dig up the president's garden at the White House, his return to the sanitarium is announced. Kuhl holds back his entrance for just a few extra beats as anticipation mounts, and when he finally strides into the room, his rigid posture of barely controlled rage creates an explosion of laughs before he can utter a single word.
Rubber-limbed Nancy P. Dall and graceful Margaret Allman stand out from the generally weak supporting cast of Second Star regulars who make up the sanitarium inhabitants, especially as Dall repeatedly tries to sit down wearing a dress held together with pins. Allman sensitively portrays a woman who believes a doll is her dead child.
Accompanying the laughs is a message about dreams being realized, with an epilogue that is unexpectedly quite moving.
"The Curious Savage" runs through Saturday by Second Star Productions at the Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park, southbound Route 3, in Bowie. Showtime is 8 p.m. For tickets, call 301-858-7245.