‘The Angel Next Door’ Gets Laughs… But at Whose Expense?

The latest in a string of world premieres, North Coast Repertory Theatre opened The Angel Next Door on September 6, where it will run through October 1.

The story is an adaptation of ‘Play at the Castle’ by Ferenc Molnár, and follows a duo of struggling playwrights, who have just arrived to a Newport haven to give their friend, novelist Oliver, a reunion with his world-renowned beau, the effervescent Margot. Enchanted by a chance introduction to the leading lady a year prior, Oliver has just put the finishing touches on his new novel for Simon and Schuster and the stage adaptation to “The Angel Next Door” has already been pitched with Margot as the leading lady. There’s just one problem: it’s possible that Margot doesn’t even know Oliver exists and she certainly has never read his piece.

Oliver is determined to change that, but when the thin walls of the adjoining rooms reveal Margot’s illicit affair with vapid baritone Victor Pratt, the devastated novelist declares his contract and the manuscript void. This leaves Charlotte and Arthur without the option to produce the play, unless they can salvage the broken pieces.

The playwright, writer, and housekeeper react to what they hear.

The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “The Angel Next Door.” Photo by Aaron Rumley.

The script for this adaptation, which was commissioned by David Ellenstein and North Coast Repertory Theatre, is the work of playwright Paul Slade Smith, who is known for his other plays Unnecessary Farce and The Outsider, both of which have previously been staged at North Coast Rep. This production, based on a three act play-in-play farce by Hungarian writer Molnár, is in many ways a nod to the theatrical industry: the characters are all theatre-adjacent and an added character of the physically imposing and somewhat austere housekeeper, Olga, ultimately makes her way from hating theatre people to being theatre people.

The play is also bookended with scenes in which the playwrights indicate where the audience would be… you know, if this was a set. “This room could stand to lose a door,” they laugh in the first scene, capping the production with a joke about how “there’s a play in there.” These direct acknowledgements create the  frame in which the drama will reign supreme. Expect it to be over the top.

With that in mind, the actors have risen to the occasion. James Newcomb and Barbara E. Robertson are delightful as the married playwright couple, the Sanders, who depend on the success of the manuscript for their livelihood. Robertson plays brilliant, underestimated schemer Charlotte who is unafraid to do what needs to be done, while Newcomb’s Arthur is along for the ride, as long as there will be food. Taubert Nadalini plays Oliver, the naive and emotional novelist whose disenchantment with the woman he idolizes manifests as a breakdown, complete with screaming, staring, and other extreme behaviors. Elinor Gunn is a gem as celebrity Margot; in particular, her concern for the feelings of penpal Oliver and her perceptiveness read as genuine. Opposite Gunn, Thomas Edward Daugherty’s dense-but-agreeable leading man, Victor Pratt, reads as clearly out of his league, which helps the audience to root for the Margot/Oliver romance in the end. Rounding out the cast is Erin Noel Grennan as boorish, social cue-ignoring housekeeper Olga.

The playwrights and housekeeper react to the circumstances.

The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s ‘The Angel Next Door.’ Photo by Aaron Rumley.

The play is set on a set that screams farce – why else would there be so many doors? – which has been beautifully designed and dressed by resident scenic designer Marty Burnett and evenly lit by Matthew Novotny. Character costumes  range from dramatic boudoir apparel to suiting to evening wear and are accurate to the characters they depict and well suited towards advancing the plot under the eye of costume designer Elisa Benzoni. Of particular note is Ian Scott’s sound design, which includes a variety of sound effects as well as extended dialogue scenes that must be heard through the wall from the adjoining bedchamber. Scott and director David Ellenstein have done a great job of ensuring that these scenes not only flow seamlessly, but maintain their pacing. The show’s degree of comedy can also be attributed to Ellenstein, whose blocking effectively creates the situations needed in order to advance the storyline while keeping the audience entertained.

I must note that I have had to spend more time than expected thinking through one particular aspect of this production that I feel cannot go unmentioned: the characterization of housekeeper Olga Molnar. In what I believe to be a nod to the playwright of the source script, Ferenc Molnár, this character has been written as a foreigner of indeterminate origin. At one point, a cast member even remarks on trying to place her accent and she responds, “good luck with that.”

While I respect that artistic license must be taken in the development process for a new play, I am disappointed that this show, in its infancy, has made this particular creative choice. “It stupid,” Olga repeats at one point in the production. In another scene, she says, “I make living by bringing breakfast to crazy people.” All of these broken phrases are delivered in an ambiguous quasi-Mitteleuropean accent and accompanied by a disregard for social norms in 1948 Rhode Island society.

To be clear, I do not fault Grennan for this characterization; she is consistent and committed to her performance. That said, I am concerned that we, as purveyors and patrons of professional theatre in 2023, find it acceptable to see – and delight in – cheap laughs directed towards the only immigrant character in an upper crust storyline, one who is clearly implied to be new to the language, and one whose characterization is rooted in stereotype.

The playwrights and writer hear Margot through the wall.

The cast of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s ‘The Angel Next Door.’ Photo by Aaron Rumley.

My first language is English and I studied Spanish when I was growing up. When I enrolled in my biliteracy-focused teaching credential program, I had the opportunity to participate in a Border Pedagogy Conference with teachers from Mexico. I recall reading a Spanish language play with them with astounding clarity. In particular, I remember my feeling of anxiety, directly attributable to a concern that my words or pronunciation might be wrong. I imagine what it would be like to be an audience member with roots in another region or a newcomer to the English language, to see a caricature like this one on display, and to hear the people around me celebrating pointed humor at that character’s expense… and again, the best word to describe how I feel is disappointment.

If we hope, want, and need for our theatres to continue to represent the diversity of our neighborhoods, we need to also ensure that we are showing our respect FOR diversity as well. I understand that North Coast Rep has a Diversity and Inclusion statement on their website which calls out “creating welcoming and accessible spaces for all people” as one of its values. I encourage the playwright and production team to interrogate this creative choice against that stated value. I feel it misses the mark.

Charlotte says in the show, “the reason we write happy endings is because we need them.” Given the laughter in the theatre, it appeared that the audience enjoyed themselves and got what they needed out of the production. The actors certainly looked like they were having fun. Here’s hoping that opening a conversation to the ways that theatre can transform will allow us to create spaces where everyone, regardless of their personal experiences, can do just that.

The Angel Next Door runs through October 1 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

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  1. Rossann Baker on September 21, 2023 at 11:37 am

    Where might I obtain a copy of this script to read? I am on a Play Selection Committee for the Theatre of Western Springs in Western Springs IL.

    • Cassiopeia Guthrie on November 11, 2023 at 2:44 pm

      I’d recommend reaching out to the theatre or the playwright directly, as it is a commission that premiered at North Coast Repertory Theatre and continued on to Laguna Beach.

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