In the Centenary Stage Company’s production of “The Ladykillers,” hardened men are first surprised, then irritated, then finally bested by that most indomitable force: relentless old-world decency and charm. This sums up both the play’s plot and my experience watching it at the Sitnik Theater Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown.
At times, “The Ladykillers” feels like a particularly bright object on an antique store shelf: lovely, well-made and clearly designed with the sensibilities of another time. But by the end of this cheery production, that light-hearted touch of nostalgia becomes its strength.
We begin in a house filled with the pink and rose petal motifs required of all grandmothers’ houses. Set Designer Matthew Imhoff layers the space with well-observed and whimsical details, from kitchen utensils that would earn a historical reenactor’s approval to paintings that never quite hang straight.
We learn that this is the North London abode of Mrs. Wilberforce, an elderly widow who spends her days caring for an old parrot named General Gordon and practicing her overdeveloped sense of civic involvement. The character could easily have devolved into a shallow caricature, but Colleen Smith Wallnau endows her with an appealingly sincere kindness. The most callous heart would find itself powerless beneath her kindly benevolent gaze.
So, when Professor Marcus (Carl Wallnau) literally darkens Mrs. Wilberforce’s door, we fear for this archetype of sweet little old ladies everywhere. One by one, we meet the members of the professor’s alleged musical troupe, who plan to rent Mrs. Wilberforce’s empty room for their practice sessions.
There’s chittering, jittering Major Courtney (David Edwards), earnest and vaguely slimy Harry Robinson (Nick Bettens), the menacing Louis Harvey with an accent you’ll recognize from action movies and a fondness for knives (David Sitler), and the large and lumbering One Round (Connor McCrea), who’s a cross between a large bear and Lennie Small.
Rent the room, they do. Play music, they do not. Instead, they’re using their cover stories to plan a major robbery– and they’ll kill anyone who gets in their way.
Or try to, anyway. And therein lies the plot.
In general, the show is pleasantly entertaining. There is well-acted physical comedy. There are telling moments that foreshadow satisfying if predictable payoffs. There are some real laugh-out-loud reactions and the most convincing delivery of the line “You shall not pass” not uttered by Gandalf the Grey.
It’s all a bit of fun, though there are moments when the show’s source material threatens to show its age. Adapted in 2011 by Graham Linehan from the 1955 Ealing Studio movie, the script generally draws from more timeless humor. One ongoing joke about the crossdressing habits of Edwards’ character comes treacherously close to the limits of 21st century taste. Yet Edwards invests his character with such dignified– one might even say queenly– mannerisms in those moments that we return from the precipice of camp, the crisis passes, and the show hums pleasantly along once more.
It wasn’t until I read the notes from Director Carl Wallnau that I thought the show could have deeper meanings to plumb. Wallnau’s notes mention that the characters in the original 1955 movie symbolized different segments of British post-war society, a correspondence that went totally over my head.
Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t see the 1955 movie, but the Coen brothers’ 2004 adaptation of “The Ladykillers” with Tom Hanks, set in a Deep South far from England. Maybe it’s because I’m a Millennial.
Either way, I didn’t get the metaphor, and I don’t think you’ll need to in order to enjoy the play. It struck me as an old-fashioned romp, endearing in its simplicity, more interested in laughs than in philosophical truths. Through that lens, a visit to Mrs. Wilberforce’s house is a lovely treat.
“The Ladykillers” is now playing at Sitnik Theater at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown until March 5th.
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.