What the Dickens?! Really Hard Times at a Very Bleak House, Free Associates, at the Royal George Theatre Center. Ripe for conquest by these skilled parodists, Dickens's novels provide everything that comic improvisation feeds on: sudden crises, moral extremes, broad stereotypes, eccentric behavior. Rubber-faced, accent-perfect, and overt or subtle as needed, Adrienne Smith's five ensemble members make the most of the master, whose brooding bust is prominently displayed, perhaps as an incentive.
The show's prime asset is pseudosolemn, impish-faced Ryan Pfeiffer. The purity of his puss perfectly suits him to play the endearing Oliver/David/Nicholas role of the deserving orphan who confronts something hidden in his past. Expertly contrasting pluck and pathos, Pfeiffer depicted Lionel Standingtall on the evening I attended. A bad-smelling manure shoveler whose brother has clumsily raised her as a him, Lionel falls in love with web-footed Gwendolyn, also reared contrary to nature. Happily, the two seeming lesbians straighten themselves out, so to speak. Pfeiffer's one misstep was seeming not to recognize this successful resolution.
The other performers fell naturally into their roles as foils, playing cruel relations, doomed best friends, freak-show denizens, and hearty working-class blokes. For attention-deficient audiences, the cast's often hilarious 80-minute shows should be a better deal than reading the novels. And for Dickens fans, they offer a second chance to savor the merry melodrama.