Playwrights are irresistibly drawn, time and again, to the subject of the theater itself.
It’s hard to blame them. All those outsize personalities, all those rivalries and romances, all those swollen egos and petty jealousies, not to mention the drama inherent in the struggle to get a play from the page to the stage: It adds up to plenty of juicy material.
George Brant’s contribution to the genre is “Into the Breeches!,” a slight but engaging backstage comedy set in Boston in 1942. Nimbly directed by Bryn Boice, it’s at the BCA’s Plaza Theatre in a production by Hub Theatre Company of Boston.
Brant’s affection for his characters is palpable, and he succumbs to the gravitational pull of sentimentality a bit too often, as if emulating the plays and movies of the World War II era. Larry David might say there’s too much hugging.
And that exclamation point in the title promises a level of uproarious, “Noises Off”-style farce that never quite materializes, except for one bit — which I will not spoil by describing — that just might be the most memorable sight gag of the year.
In any case, “Into the Breeches!” ultimately wins you over as it brings us inside a fictional Boston theater, the Oberon Play House, during a moment of crisis.
With most of the company’s male actors as well as its artistic director serving overseas, the theater faces the grim prospect of a canceled season. Then Maggie (Lauren Elias) — whose husband is the artistic director — has a brainstorm: Why not present an all-female production of both parts of “Henry IV” as well as “Henry V,” directed by her?
As evidenced by the recent revivals of “1776″ and “Company,” among many others, gender-swapping roles is routine today. But in 1942? Not so much. Ellsworth (Steve Auger), the staunchly conservative president of the Oberon Play House board, takes an over-my-dead-body position — right up to the point when Maggie offers a role to his sweet-natured, seemingly (emphasis on seemingly) spacey wife, Winifred (the very funny June Kfoury).
But Maggie’s casting challenges are far from over.
“Into the Breeches!’’ could not be more different from Brant’s “Grounded,” a solo drama (presented at Central Square Theater in 2015, starring Celeste Oliva) about a hard-edged fighter pilot who is reassigned to work as a military drone operator, suffering a heavy psychological toll as she deals out remote-control death. Brant’s “The Prince of Providence,” a rollicking portrait of notorious Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, was staged by Trinity Repertory Company in 2019, when I wrote that it was “as quick-witted, sharp-edged, unpredictable, unstoppable, unsettling, and generally complicated as Cianci himself.”
“Into the Breeches!” is not in their league — I doubt it was intended to be — but it does illustrate that theater, too, is rife with complication and unpredictability. As for unstoppable, well, in this case that depends on Maggie. Elias does a nice job throughout at conveying both the fraying of Maggie’s nerves and the novice director’s determination to pull off the production; one of the play’s main themes has to do with whether Maggie can fully come into her own.
First, though, she has to deal with the company’s imperious leading lady, Celeste (Kathleen Pickett), so vain she thinks she can still play Juliet, even though she’s in her 50s. Celeste sees the absence of the company’s men as a chance to further burnish her already lofty reputation. (June, the youngest member of the company, played by Lily Ayotte, is utterly star-struck when she meets Celeste.)
So Celeste becomes very unhappy when Maggie decides that she will not play young Hal (later Henry V) but rather his father, Henry IV, and that unproven newcomer Grace (Jessica Golden) will get to play Henry V instead. Pickett is terrific as Celeste, portraying her as a cross between Harriet Harris in her “Frasier” mode, Bette Davis in her “All About Eve” mode, and Tallulah Bankhead in her everyday mode. The action Celeste takes in response to her demotion is as dramatic as you’d expect it to be.
For others, though, opportunity is knocking and barriers are being knocked down.
Ida (Nettie Chickering), a gifted costume designer and the only Black member of the company, seizes the chance to move from an offstage role to an onstage one. Her portrayal of Hotspur will make her the first Black performer to appear at the Oberon Play House. Still shouldering her usual job as well, Ida hits upon a way to “bring the war home” via unexpected costumes.
Also seeking a moment in the limelight is Stuart (Robert Orzalli), the Oberon’s stage manager. Stuart, who is harboring a secret about his identity that could have been a career-ender in 1942, has an idea for how he could play Mistress Quickly while still preserving the “all-female” construct, after a fashion.
Within the general light-heartedness of “Into the Breeches!,” playwright Brant wants us to think about questions of intolerance, injustice, and gender disparity — questions that are far from resolved even today.
It turns out that none of the women who have acted at the Oberon Play House — including Celeste — have ever been paid. That’s one of the many things the new cast sets out to change.
INTO THE BREECHES!
Play by George Brant. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by Hub Theatre Company of Boston. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Nov. 20. Tickets are “pay what you can.” www.hubtheatreboston.org