Review: Twisting the ‘Stairs to the Roof’

 Craig O'Brien walks alongside some of the cast of 'Stairs to the Roof' in the EgoPo Classic Theater production. (Photo courtesy of David Sarrafian)

Craig O'Brien walks alongside some of the cast of 'Stairs to the Roof' in the EgoPo Classic Theater production. (Photo courtesy of David Sarrafian)

In Tennessee Williams’ vision, his play “Stairs to the Roof” is about an idealist who fights the industrialized world. In the vision of Lane Savadove, the artistic director of EgoPo Classic Theater, “Stairs to the Roof” is a comic fantasy – more a Tennessee Williams spoof than a Tennessee Williams play.

Lane Savadove has it right. The proof is on stage, where EgoPo’s “Stairs to the Roof” is a burst of comic elegance and eccentric staging – an ingenious way to handle the ham-handed, precious “Stairs to the Roof.” When you listen to the script as delivered by EgoPo’s cast of professional actors and students from Rowan University, you understand just why the production works; any serious reading of a play with lines like “Oh! Swan! Come up closer and cool us with your beauty!” could easily be execrable.

In Savadove’s staging, the swan in question is played by a guy, and the bird reacts in a flirty way to the girl who implores him. It’s a hoot – as is much of the show, in Williams’ words and Savadove’s staging. The outcome of all this light-headedness? In the end, the production gives “Stairs to the Roof” precisely the bittersweet aftertaste that Williams intended. It just gets there differently.

To be fair to Williams, he was a young and unpolished writer whose first name was still Tom when he wrote “Stairs to the Roof.” He may have been taken by Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine,” written years earlier in the ’20s — like “Stairs to the Roof,” that play censures corporate culture and ends in a way that mixes realism with fantasy. Savadove’s staging – beginning with office workers as robots under the thumbs of unappreciative corporate masters – is in some ways similar to the highly effective staging of “The Adding Machine” Off-Broadway a few seasons back.

But there’s a big difference – “The Adding Machine” was presented with a sincere intensity, and “Stairs to the Roof” is as close as you come to a cartoon without actual animation. The result: It’s a delight, this story about Ben (the engaging Craig O’Brien), who works at a shirt factory and has aspirations toward adventure and fulfilling unrealized dreams. One day, Ben takes too long a break, then reveals to a higher-up that he’s been up on the roof of the factory, having found stairs that go there.

A factory worker looking up to the heights? Unthinkable! Ben, married and with a child on the way (another tie-down), meets up with a secretary from the company (Lauren Berman) and they set out on their own mini-adventure through town. (This involves the zoo, and thus the swan.) But what real adventure can possibly lie ahead when you have to be back at the office at 9?

I’d never heard of “Stairs to the Roof” until EgoPo scheduled the play as part of its current season – it’s among a trove of plays, many of them early ones, that have turned up in Williams’ papers, and it’s almost never produced. Cheers to EgoPo for finding the most affecting way to make it work, and the actors who move like precise machines, deliver lines as if they were written for comic panels and run around the stage like a zoo on the loose. Some of the standouts are Dana Orange, Christopher Marlowe Roche, Matthew Weil, Michael Pliskin, Jenna Kuerzi, Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and Andy Spinosi. They and their colleagues are all up to the task. On Dan Soule’s inventive cartoony set, they turn a piece that cannot be done as intended into a piece that’s done right.

“Stairs to the Roof,” produced by EgoPo Classic Theater, runs through March 1 at the playing space inside the Latvian Society, Seventh Street and Spring Garden. 267-273-1414 or www.egopo.org.

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