What do you get when you take the star of the longest running one-woman Broadway show, add the artistic director of the esteemed Bay Street Theater and top it off with a talented, young actor who’s making his debut as a published playwright? You get the unbelievable triumph that is The Prompter.
The deceptively dramatic comedy opens to Tovah Feldshuh as Irene Young, dressed in a luxurious purple ensemble topped with a feathered hat, reciting Lady Bracknell’s lines from The Importance of Being Earnest—later revealed to be a hip, new adaption of the play, succinctly titled Ernest! Enter Wade Dooley, as himself, feeding Irene lines and stage directions through an in-ear monitor. He then turns to the audience to inform them that while Irene is the famous actress, and he the lowly prompter, this is his show.
Wade the character/narrator, likely a caricature of the real-life Dooley, is an absolute riot to watch. With hilarious monologues, one-liners, accents, impressions, dance breaks and a high-energy comedy style on par with Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland, he keeps the audience in stitches for most of the play, injecting heart-warming and heart-wrenching moments throughout.
One powerful example of these solemn moments is when Wade cancels plans with his boyfriend, Jason, because Irene isn’t comfortable working with a replacement prompter in his absence. Jason berates him for taking the prompting job and his friendship with Irene so seriously, uttering the belittling phrase: “Anybody can do what you’re doing.” Wade takes a moment to ponder the harrowing thought, but ultimately prioritizes his relationship with Irene over the one with his boyfriend.
Watching Irene and Wade’s relationship ebb and flow throughout the course of The Prompter is a deeply emotional ride. After a rocky introduction, in which he greets her with the name of her former children’s show character, Grammy, the two develop an increasingly close working friendship, which he believes to be a mutual, grandmother-grandson type of relationship. There are some intense fights and heartbreaking moments along the way, but Wade remains steadfast in his belief of their familial love for each other. His loved ones are less convinced that Irene cares for him the way he thinks she does, and presume her to be taking advantage of him.
These two perspectives are played with several times during the play when Wade narrates a touching moment that happens between he and Irene, only to press rewind and show the audience what really happened—usually a less pleasant exchange. At the end of the play, Irene gives a surprising monologue declaring, once and for all, which perspective is closest to the truth.
While Wade is an upbeat dreamer who lives his life like an open book, Irene is much more complicated. She’s a proud, demanding diva, with several decades of acting experience, yet she’s utterly terrified of the thought that she’s become too old to perform on Broadway alone and desperately needs Wade’s help to perform. The only thing that can calm her down in this state is Wade whispering their special code word, “Mercy,” into her earpiece. Though the character is bitter and abrasive, her wicked sense of humor is met with raucous laughter. Feldshuh delivers each shocking, often raunchy, punch line with incredible force and steals many a scene with her wild antics.
One can’t praise Dooley and Feldshuh’s acting in The Prompter enough, but much of the show’s success comes from the direction of Scott Schwartz. The use of voiceover for all characters except Wade and Irene is a brilliant way to keep the show focused on the relationship at the heart of the story. The action flows remarkably well, with perfectly timed breaks in the story for Wade to daydream about winning a Tony Award or making the first move at a school dance. These over-the-top detours offer some of the biggest laughs of the show, and highlight why Dooley—and his debut play—are destined for Broadway.
The Prompter runs at Bay Street Theater (1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor) through Sunday, June 16. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 for tickets.