What do the words “middle management” bring to mind? If you picture a man halfway up a tree in his underwear, then the jolly “Neville’s Island” won’t take you by surprise.
Playwright Tim Firth keeps the loopy images coming in his comedy about four office managers on a team-building retreat gone wrong; right off the bat they’re stranded on a foggy island in England’s Lake District. Russell Parkman’s set in the Olney Theatre Center’s production — directed with an ear for absurdity by Jason King Jones — is an evocative assembly of boulders and bare trees. (Think Great Falls or Roosevelt Island.) The men drag themselves ashore, pouring water out of boots and slapping their half-naked bodies silly to keep warm.
“This is what the Romans did when they first came to Britain,” says Neville, the group’s nebbishy leader, trying to adopt a conquering spirit.
Plainly this 1992 farce is “The Office” by way of “Lord of the Flies” — or “Lord of the Files,” as one of the drones wryly puts it. It’s very British, fundamentally cheerful and innocent, even as this quirky gang of four falls apart.
The prime rift is between the drippingly sarcastic Gordon, who lost all his gear in the lake, and the over-prepared Angus, whose massive backpack is a bottomless source of extravagant camping supplies. Gordon’s a verbal bully, and actor Michael Glenn is impressively inventive with the role’s unchained melody of insults. Angus is sweet but a little dim, a big teddy bear in Todd Scofield’s gentle performance, which features several very funny speeches as the misadventure unspools.
Michael Russotto nails the blandness of middle management as Neville, splendidly fading into near-nothingness as the group’s nominal leader. Bolton Marsh almost literally shines in the beatific role of Roy, a Christian recovering from a nervous breakdown. (Guess who’s up the tree in his skivvies, thanking the Lord for birds?)
The dialogue is consistently bright: The characters are intelligent, even if they aren’t sharp enough to actually do much about being marooned. Firth is the English writer better known for the films “Calendar Girls” and “Kinky Boots” (now a Broadway musical with songs by Cyndi Lauper), but theater buffs may also be reminded of Alan Ayckbourn’s clever comedies (“The Norman Conquests,” “House & Garden”). Ayckbourn is a near-
genius at spinning Everyman frustrations into laughter, and the connection here isn’t accidental: “Neville’s Island” was birthed at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Ayckbourn’s theater company in Scarborough, England.
“Neville’s” is largely fun, yet it has two glaring flaws. Firth can be awfully predictable, from Gordon’s one-note character to a late surprise entrance that you utterly expect. Worse, the performance runs every bit of two hours and 45 minutes. That eventually lets a lot of helium out of the balloon, and it leaves you plen-n-n-n-ty of time to wonder about the 85-minute version made for British TV.
by Tim Firth. Directed by Jason King Jones. Costumes, Martha Hally; lights, Joel Moritz; sound design, Will Pickens. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through April 28 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.