The Chicago premiere of Chris Woodley’s British farce “Tommy on Top” at the Pride Arts Center is more like “Tommy in the Middle.” Is it a romantic comedy disguised as a farce or a farce that has been toned down to make it more palatable to an American audience?
Tommy Miller (a charismatic and handsome Ryan Cason) is a closed Hollywood actor whose body of work usually involves showing off his body as an idol in light-hearted teen comedies. He gets a surprising Best Actor Oscar nomination after starring in a low-budget independent film in which he appears against type.
Her boyfriend, George (a low-key but sensitive Patrick Gosney), citing musical theatre, is supportive, but understandably frustrated with what the nomination means: No actor has ever won the Best Actor Oscar and if Tommy wants to win gold, he and George will have to keep their relationship firmly locked in the closet (at least until post-awards season).
They were put up in a swanky hotel room for the week before the awards show by Tommy’s acerbic agent Eddie (a suitably rude, bitter and over-the-top Brian Boller), who set up a series of interviews designed to cement Tommy’s Oscar win.
A bit of chaos enters the couple’s little Oscar love nest with the arrival of Molly (Theresa Liebhart), Tommy’s brash and often drunk sister. A social media influencer when she’s not drinking, Molly hopes to add a few million followers to her brand by documenting the days leading up to her brother’s big day.
Things get more complicated with the arrival of a rival agent, Judy (an all-business Sandra Franco). Judy has learned that a gossip blogger named Kiki (an appropriately venomous Blythe Inanna) might have dirt on Tommy and she offers to do damage control if Tommy agrees to be her new client.
Jay Espano is undoubtedly a talented director who has done wonders in his inaugural season as artistic director of Pride Arts to elevate the quality of work presented by the company. Its set design of a sleek, well-appointed Hollywood hotel is the kind you might expect to see in a Cole Porter comedy at the Goodman Theatre.
British stuffing isn’t always easy to sell to an American audience. You can probably count the number of such productions that have resonated here on the one hand (“The Play That Goes Wrong” and “One Man, Two Guvnors” are two that immediately come to mind). It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Espano seems reluctant to guide his cast into fully leaning into the wacky parts of Woodley’s script.
Cason and Gosney share a lot of chemistry and their relationship is grounded in reality. Their first scenes as they explore the challenges they face as a couple are endearing. It’s a nice setup, and you patiently wait for things to go off the rails like they usually do in pranks, but such things never fully materialize.
Oh, the key elements of the farce are mostly there: multiple instances of mistaken or threatened identity, fast-paced action, and, of course, physical comedy. Jack Mcelroy’s fight choreography in particular is definitely in the farce stage.
However, with the exception of Eddie and Kiki, we miss the over-the-top performances associated with the genre. The end result is two plays competing for our attention: a biting social commentary on Hollywood and a light-hearted romantic comedy.
The show’s production values are high, multiple performances are engaging, and the overall message of “owning your own truth” is undoubtedly powerful.
Unfortunately, as a prank, “Tommy on Top” is anything but overdone.