‘Neville’s Island’ at Olney Theatre Center by Amanda Gunther

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The age old question of “What would you bring with you to a desert island” always generates a wide range of curious answers, but the last thing anyone ever expects to hear when answering that question is “My co-workers from the office.”

 (l to r) Angus (Todd Scofield) Gordon (Michael Glenn) Neville (Michael Russotto) and Roy (Bolton Marsh). Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.
(l to r) Angus (Todd Scofield) Gordon (Michael Glenn) Neville (Michael Russotto) and Roy (Bolton Marsh). Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

That is exactly what happens as hilarity ensues when four middle-management, middle-aged men find themselves stranded on an island in The Lake District of England after a team-building exercise goes horribly awry. Olney Theatre Center’s Neville’s Island, written by Tim Firth and Directed by Jason King Jones, is a dark and twisted comedy that evokes gut-busting laughter and deep tensions that erupt to the surface when rescue seems like a pipe dream, and when these four colleagues discover that they might just be stuck on the island forever.

Scenic Designer Russell Parkman brings the wilderness to life right before our eyes. The craft work of his bare spindly and skeletal trees that arch upward into the bleak gray nothingness of the island fog set a somber and slightly ominous tone even before the four shipwrecked fellows arrive on dry land. Parkman’s landscaping gives the island a barren feeling – a perfect reflection of the internal emotions for several of the characters. Working with Lighting Designer Joel Moritz, the pair swiftly ease the passage of time in shades of rich blue twilit dawns, deep dark purples of night and dreary grays that create the fog.

Laying credit upon the very talented shoulders of Director Jason King Jones, working in conjunction with Dialect Consultant Lynn Watson who navigates the murky waters of appropriate accents for the show, the play becomes a roaring success looking and sounding exactly as it should. Creating a sense of functioning dysfunction with dissension in the ranks is no easy task, but Jones tackles it head on with four extremely talented actors. His blocking and full use of the space keeps the actors from closing off their frustrations to the audience, really giving them a chance to let everything air out in the open, from their emotions to their wet clothes and then some.

The production relies heavily on the sheer nonsense of the situation that they find themselves in as well as physical expressivity to keep the comic elements fresh. All four of the performers have a unique character niche that they dig into and allow the comedy to settle and fester before oozing out into the island’s atmosphere.

Watching the intense physical moments, from the beginning where they are floundering about as they haul themselves out of the lake and up onto the shore, right through to the end with a good deal of physical combat, designed in stunning real-time action by Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba, keep the audience engaged and laughing along as the play spirals toward its completely twisted and totally unexpected ending.What makes this production a real success is the comic execution of serious moments played to their full severity, allowing the audience to interpret them as uproarious. Michael Glenn claims the winner’s ribbon when it comes to this task, erupting and exploding with physical and vocal exasperation that simply cannot be beat, making him the comic ring-leader of sorts in this production. His unflappable ability to find frustration in every miniscule thing is utterly hilarious and he drives 90% of the comedy in this performance.

Rounding out the three simpleton roles are Roy (Bolton Marsh), Neville (Michael Russotto), and Angus (Todd Scofield). Each one is simplistic in his own right and the trio become the verbal epitome of the three stooges, substituting in place for slapstick physicality the utterly absurd nonsense that flies from their mouths every time they open.

Scofield as the overly-prepared Angus has a sharp sense of inadvertent timing. His lines are often crafted in such a way that they fill brief pauses with verbal nonsense, resulting in tumultuous laughs from the audience. Scofield allows his character to exist on a low-key scale until the madness that cracks them all toward the end of the play becomes blatantly apparent and a rampaging maniac is set free both vocally and physically. He experiences more of the dark emotions that drive this comedy into uncharted waters of heavy subject matter, and does so with a sincerity that makes it difficult not to feel for his character.

Michael Glenn (Gordon), Michael Russotto (Neville), Todd Scofield (Angus), and Bolton Marsh (Roy). Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.
Michael Glenn (Gordon), Michael Russotto (Neville), Todd Scofield (Angus), and Bolton Marsh (Roy). Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

Marsh, as the “Doolally” Christian who took a mental vacation prior to arriving on the island with the others – becomes a priceless cog in this overall machine of actors. Marsh finds a sublime equilibrium in his character’s duality; split right down the middle line of barely keeping it together and going totally round the twist. Watching this fissure in his personality expand as the show progresses is an intriguing madness of its own; wondering what exactly it is that will send him right over the edge. Marsh’s character is an integral part of the explosively unpredictable ending and it ties his performance together in an outstanding fashion well worthy of an appreciative nod.

Russotto, as Captain Neville (thusly appointed by his cohorts), plays the character on the surface, which in this case is exactly what is needed to keep the delicate balance of madness and sanity in check with the other three performers. A little aloof and easily excitable, Russotto transforms the character slowly, reaching a much more dramatic individual deep beneath the superficial simplicity of the man he starts out as; adding to the lunacy of the play’s climactic ending.

The show’s comedy is mastered by Michael Glenn. Playing the smarmy sarcastic pessimistic all around jerk character, Glenn is the epitome of perfection when it comes to comic timing and delivery. The script is loaded with venomous zingers that Glenn spits out of his mouth with a fierce intensity. His performance is all inclusive from his vast range of zany facial expressions to his extreme physical movements that bring an additional bit of comedy to the already riotous show. Glenn has several moments of gob smack disbelief where he stands staring dumbfounded for a moment and then without missing a beat blasts out sarcastic joke. He runs comic circles around the play but is not simply a comic actor. There are moments of sheer anger and epic frustration that come exploding from deep within him when the madness finally sets in, making this one hell of a performance all round. Glenn is an exceptionally gifted performer; a stunning ringer for best in show.

Olney Theatre Center’s Neville’s Island is a laugh-a-minute comedy tempered with darkness and punctuated with the seriousness of the situation; a brilliantly witty production that will keep you on the edge of your seat in laughter and curious suspense right until the very end.

Running Time: Approximately three hours, with one intermission.

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Neville’s Island plays through April 28, 2013 at The Olney Theatre Center’s Main Stage – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.