Review: “Two Days in Court”

Kingsley Day as The Learned Judge, jurors (clockwise from top) Frank Gasparro, Rob Chesler, Lee Wichman in “Trial by Jury,” part of “Two Days in Court.” (Photo by Steve Graue)

RECOMMENDED

Where: City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. (inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church)
When: through May 26
Tickets: $32
Phone: 773-293-3682

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

I went to see City Lit Theater’s “Two Days in Court” mostly because I remembered liking the film version of Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the first of the two classic one acts on the bill, when I was a child.

But it turns out that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury,” the mini comic opera that rounds out the 90-minute program, is more fun.

Originally produced in 1875, the duo’s first hit comes across as a trial run (excuse the pun) for later sensations like “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance.” The totally silly plot lampoons the legal system and is mostly an excuse for delightful music including tongue-twisting patter songs for the Learned Judge, in this case played by experienced Savoyard Kingsley Day.

The Judge is presiding over a “breach of promise of marriage” complaint brought by the Plaintiff, Angelina (Sarah Beth Tanner), but before she arrives and charms judge and jury alike, we meet the Defendant, Edwin (Jimmy Hogan). He rather gleefully admits his guilt, claiming his fiancé became boring, so he took up with another woman.

The disregard of anything resembling political correctness is blatant, and breaches include Edwin offering to marry both women as a way to satisfy them. Meanwhile, the Judge, whose history is not so different from the Defendant’s, turns his roving eye on Angelina, resulting in an outcome that, however ridiculous, seems to satisfy everyone.

City Lit crams 17 actors—including six bridesmaids and as many “gentlemen of the jury” – on its small stage for this cream puff (with hidden bite), which is directed by Terry McCabe with astute musical direction by Daniel Robinson. Most are first-rate singers, even those in small roles like the Usher (Dylan Connelley) and the Counsel for the Plaintiff (Ryan Smetana). A big plus is that they are performing without amplification, and the sound quality is excellent.

The same cannot be said for the other technical aspects, among them the minimal set by Evan Frank, limited lighting by Liz Cooper, and budget-conscious costume design by Tom Kieffer.

To be fair, the set and light placement double for “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” as does the ensemble. Benét wrote the one-act play in 1938, basing it on his 1936 short story. He followed up with an opera in 1939, and two songs from that are incorporated into City Lit’s version. He also was responsible for the 1941 screenplay, though it’s very different from the script for the stage.

Set in a New Hampshire farmhouse in 1841, the play begins with a wedding celebration for Jabez Stone (Nate Strain) and Mary Stone (Laura Resinger). But the now-successful Jabez is fearful because ten years earlier, when he was a dirt-poor farmer, he sold his soul to the devil out of desperation, and his debt is coming due at midnight.

Luckily for Jabez, one of his wedding guests is famous attorney and statesman Daniel Webster (Bill Chamberlain), and when old Scratch (Lee Wichman) arrives to collect on “the mortgage,” the terrified young farmer asks for help. As Mary is sent off to pray, the centerpiece becomes the trial for her husband’s soul.

Scratch gets to pick the jury, as long as they are Americans, so he selects a “Jury of the Damned,” half-a-dozen of the worst criminals and traitors in history. With Justice Hawthorne (Rob Chester) presiding, the proceedings seem stacked against the defendant until Webster switches tactics and appeals to the freedom the jurors once had to enjoy little pleasures and their memories thereof.

Though the script shows its age and gets a bit preachy, there’s also much to enjoy, including the boundless praise of New Hampshire men and, of course, the Devil getting his due. The problem is that the acting is very broad, especially for the size of the theater, and director McCabe doesn’t have enough room for interesting blocking. The two songs are nice, but unlike the music and singing in “Trial by Jury,” they don’t compensate for the other shortcomings.