Placing an adaptation of a fiercely beloved franchise like P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels in your theater season is a gamble in the guise of a slam-dunk. The odds seem fantastically favorable for his brilliant and barmy silly-master/wise-servant saga (adapted by Margaret Raether from several Wodehouse stories) until you realize how hard it is to pull off. This is doubly true in the wake of the definitive early-90s BBC series starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Yes, the fond familiarity of the material brings in audiences, but it's hard to live up to the expectations. Any deviation in tone or spirit from the Wodehouse source material seems an unforgivable violation. Directed by Karen Lund, Taproot's uneven production may appeal most to those who haven't read the books or seen the Fry and Laurie series.
Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 781-9707, taproottheatre.org. $15-$40. Runs Wed.-Sat. Ends March 2.
Upper-class twit Bertie Wooster (Aaron Lamb) accompanies his newt-obsessed friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (Randy Scholz) to the home of Bertie's pushy Aunt Dahlia (Kim Norris) in pursuit of ingenue Madeline (Marianna de Fazio), with whom the romantically incompetent Gussie is in love. Mark Lund's elaborate neo-Gothic English garden hosts many layers of shenanigans, including the de Bergerac-esque love triangle (Madeline loves Bertie, of course, who couldn't care less), a planned jewel heist, and the ravings of Dahlia's cleaver-waving diva chef Anatole (Parker Matthews). It's standard Wodehouse fare, but somehow lacking seasoning and definition for much of its runtime (about two and a quarter hours, with intermission).
Casting factors into the misfire. Lamb's intelligent face cannot slacken enough to project Bertie's good-natured indolence. His taut good looks constrain him to play everything straight, relying mostly on the script for laughs. (The infinitely plastic Laurie could convey Bertie's dim mental processes without opening his mouth.) And where the writing wears thin, there are always Sarah Burch Gordon's costumes, some of which nicely reflect character. (Dahlia wears a bib-dress studded with what appear to be bicycle reflectors.) However, in one key scene, Lamb wears a ridiculously oversized, rustic suit (recognizable from many other Taproot productions), even though its a getup his omniscient, ever-proper valet Jeeves (Matt Shimkus) would never have sanctioned.
Shimkus, meanwhile, maintains a stiff physical hauteur that seems anathema to Jeeves self-effacing professionalism--literally looking down his nose at the goings-on. (At times, Roberta Russell's witty lighting better conveys Jeeves humble instrumentality to the plot.) Scholz and de Fazio hit more effective strides with their characters, providing some delightful moments. His butt-quivering imitation of a male newt during arousal and her frequent deadpan pontification--e.g., "Every time a fairy blows her nose, a baby is born"--bring whiffs of the authentic Wodehouse (who was famously discouraging of adaptations of his work).
If nothing else, this mostly clunky staging will send you looking for Jeeves and Wooster at Scarecrow, Amazon, or Netflix. (All four seasons are on DVD.) Tell them Jeeves sent you. MARGARET FRIEDMAN