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Comedy winner ‘Priest’ deserves hallelujahs

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Every two years the Arkansas Repertory Theatre sponsors the Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy, the honor named for the pre-eminent comedic team from Broadway’s Golden Age.

The two runners-up and the winning play are produced as read-throughs over one weekend, with one cast performing all three of the plays and with only eight hours to rehearse each one. This year’s winner, “Bertrand Priest,” by Ian Cohen of New York, is a winner in every sense of the word.

Reviewing a read-through is a bit like reviewing a rehearsal, so we won’t give too much away. The play, despite the short rehearsal time and the scripts in each actor’s hand, was hilarious. The play is not a farce, not silly, but that rare thing — a grown-up comedy about religion, spirituality, the purpose of life, complicated relationships between adults, and, coincidentally, the ludicrous expectations actors sometimes face. The play is at times dark, but those darkest moments are smart, funny and cutting-edge.

The read-through was followed by a question-and-answer period, allowing the audience the rare opportunity to interact with the cast, the director and the award-winning playwright. Cohen, the winner of the $10,000 prize, expressed his surprise at not only winning, but also having been entered in the contest at all. His agent let him know she planned to enter the play because of its sophisticated humor and her belief that he had a chance to win. Bravo for agents!

Cohen explained that it often takes him a year to complete a script, of which he has had six produced, almost all winners of one contest or another, and another year to complete the revisions. The New-York-based writer expressed his admiration for the Rep and the Little Rock audiences, comparing them to the sometimes “mean” and always difficult theater scene in New York. If Sunday night’s audience, which packed the house, was any indication, he is absolutely right. The audience seemed thrilled with the play, despite the fact that the script is still under development, laughing and enjoying the show as much as any other the Rep has done this season.

Cohen is an artistic associate at the Lark Play Development Center. “Bertrand Priest” will be directed by Brad Mooy and produced as part of the Rep’s regular 2006-2007 season.

The cast was no worse for the wear considering their marathon weekend of performances. There were no weaknesses in the performances and we can only hope that the same actors will return next spring when “Bertrand Priest” is staged. Standouts included Matt Walker as the skeptical Al, Josie DiVincenzo as the spiritual and magical Katrina, and Michael Mallard as Bertrand Priest. That being said, the entire cast was fine and there was not a weak spot among them.



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