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George Wendt leads cast of pros who elevate a dated ‘Never Too Late’

Updated: 2013-11-15T22:00:36Z

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

Acting talent can be judged in different ways, but one standard is a performer’s ability to breathe life into indifferent material.

Arthur Sumner Long’s workmanlike comedy “Never Too Late” was a Broadway hit in the early 1960s, but from a 21st-century perspective it seems little more than an antique sitcom.

It’s never been revived on the Great White Way but has enjoyed a long life in the provinces thanks to the comic potential of its premise: A couple approaching retirement age with a grown daughter discover that they are to have another child.

The play is a sort of middle-class comedy of manners that even contains a whiff of social commentary in its depiction of women’s roles in a sexist man’s world. But this isn’t a play with a lot on its mind. Some of the humor is painfully dated.

Even so, the production at the New Theatre Restaurant flashes to life at times, thanks to director Dennis Hennessy’s careful attention to timing and a cast that knows how to get maximum mileage out of a play from an earlier era.

Anchoring the production is George Wendt, who plays Harry Lambert, the successful owner of a lumber company. Harry’s a tight-fisted unreflective male chauvinist who believes his wife thoroughly enjoys waiting on him and maintaining a large house where his adult daughter and son-in-law also live. When it turns out that his wife, Edith, is pregnant, Harry sees it as a public embarrassment.

Edith is played by Bernadette Birkett, Wendt’s spouse of 35 years, and the two Second City veterans project an enjoyable chemistry. The bombastic Harry is the showier role, but Birkett goes for relatively subtle humor in a precise, thoughtful performance.

For his part, Wendt delivers a master class on comedic timing. He delivers much of his dialogue in an off-handed way, allowing the lines to get the laughs without forcing it. At other times, he becomes an expansive Falstaffian bufoon.

Craig Benton delivers some of his best work as Charlie, the put-upon son-in-law, and he and Wendt have a blast in Act 2 when Harry and Charlie return home after a night of heavy drinking. As Kate, Harry and Edith’s daughter, Colleen Fee makes an agreeable impression in her New Theatre debut.

Kip Niven has some fun as the Mayor, who happens to be Harry’s next-door neighbor and whose support for a new highway to be routed near Harry’s lumber company is a guarantee of the firm’s continued success. Jeannine Hutchings gives us a nicely realized performance in the underdeveloped role of Grace, Edith’s best friend. Delivering effective work in utilitarian roles are Michael Rapport as the family doctor and Tim Caster as a police officer.

We can always count on the New Theatre to have technically polished productions, and this one is no exception. The design work doesn’t offer much of a wow factor but it efficiently serves the material.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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