Wade Dooley’s semi-autobiographical dramedy “The Prompter” opened at Bay Street on June 1, starring Dooley and Tovah Feldshuh in a touching and funny two-hander directed by Bay Street’s artistic director Scott Schwartz. On the outside, the play is about an aspiring actor hired to prompt a former theatrical grande dame with a failing memory during her triumphant return to Broadway after four decades. But underneath, it’s about allegiance, control, family, and the continual roller-coaster ride between disappointment and redemption.
Up until the moment Dooley meets Irene Young, his image of her is as a former Broadway star and the sweet granny from a TV show — a far cry from the woman he meets on the first day of rehearsal. But in the theater, as it is elsewhere in life, it’s all about appearances. Dooley is there to act as a prompter for Young, to feed her the lines in a reworked, revamped production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” itself a trivial comedy. But does the title of Oscar Wilde’s play also belie what’s really significant here?
Dooley’s character, a people-pleaser and caregiver in both his relationship with Young and his off-stage boyfriend, frequently fantasizes about the way a situation will play out, but to be sincere about his feelings in an honest conversation with someone else is not in his wheelhouse. Young also is a woman who chooses to live with her shield firmly in place, although we get to see a bit of what makes both of them tick when the mask comes off in a few scenes. Mother/grandmother and son issues abound, not surprisingly.
Kevin Depinet’s set goes a long way in showing the guts of a Broadway theater and this production as well — not what the audience sees, but the dirty, smelly, and unadorned underbelly, the dressing rooms and backstage where the real drama gets played out. Dooley is suitably adorable as the enthusiastic, friendly fan who slowly becomes the confidante of the woman with whom he forms an intimate relationship, simply by being the one who whispers her lines in her ear through a microphone each night.
Feldshuh is resplendent in the role of Young; a needy but tough old broad off-stage, a consummate star in the moments we get to see her perform the role of Mrs. Bracknell. And in Dooley’s fantasy sequences, she quickly bends from cruel to kind, devoted to dismissive, in a snap. Her turn as Irene Young is pure brilliance. Thanks to the team of Feldshuh, Dooley, and Schwartz for bringing this character a real depth, amid the humor and flippancy.
The show runs 90 minutes from start to finish, and could perhaps have been sliced by 10 minutes and still have hit the same important marks, but it doesn’t really matter. This Bay Street world premiere allows Dooley to pose the question which plagues so many relationships: When is caretaking really love, and when is it about control, by either the caretaker or the one being taken care of? When is it healthy and when is it not? And when do you decide to show “mercy” to yourself above your career and your dysfunctional relationships?
“The Prompter” is another winner for Bay Street — a poignant yet not-too-deep dive into the lives of two actors, the family they choose on their journeys, and the characters they portray, both onstage and off. Running through June 16, tickets and more information are available at www.baystreet.org.