Sea of Fools, at the Purple Rose through September 1, brings to life a watershed moment in the acting craft, dear to virtually every repertory actor in the United States today. Somewhere around 1950 powerful plays about little-known pockets of America, like A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by a genius named Elia Kazan and starring a testosterone-drenched hunk named Marlon Brando, began to be seen as the future of Hollywood. The Stanislavsky school of "method" acting, which had been thrilling the cognoscenti of New York for years, had the old-style Hollywood stars on the run. Suddenly, actors like Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead — who had been trained in overheated, melodramatic techniques partly handed down from silent films, partly cheap imitation of British stage actors — were relics.

Many of these New York innovators were members of the Communist Party, and it was the McCarthy era. The ensuing clash of artistic styles turned viciously political and destroyed careers as well as egos, but the clash would have brought fireworks anyway. Sea of Fools, set in 1950, is a fictional confrontation between Elia Kazan and a group of Hollywood has-beens. It's neither tragedy nor comedy. Matt Letscher, first-time playwright and director (though an accomplished actor who has appeared at the Purple Rose), chooses to work in the ultraviolet end of the spectrum: farce.

A little pruning and shaping would have improved this production a lot, and Letscher really should have been forced to choose between writing and directing, because Sea of Fools is an amiable, sprawling mess. None of the actors except Sandra Birch seem able to get their tongues around Letscher's impossible convoys of words. (Birch not only flawlessly brings cadence and rhythm to lines that are a tad worse than they really need to be, but she also marvelously plays a Swansonesque Egyptian-walking, velvet-turbaned doyenne who crosses the stage with one arm out in front of her as if she's bushwhacking through a thicket.) Grant R. Krause, playing Elia Kazan, instead of showing the dazzling new less-is-more style of acting, can't resist the temptation to mug it up as much as the rest of the actors onstage. A lavish production number at the end is hilariously well executed but comes out of nowhere. Yet you can't really go too far wrong when you get a group of professional actors together to do a play about bad acting. When actors enjoy themselves, audiences tend to follow suit.

[Review published August 2007]