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Backstage 'Jitters' takes center stage at Desiderio's

There is a bit of a feeling of falling down the rabbit hole when you are sent to review the opening night of a play about the cast and crew of a play who are nervous wrecks about having the opening night of their play reviewed.

Consider it "Jitters" squared. The popular 1979 comedy by Canadian playwright David French has just opened in the intimate performance space of Desiderio's Dinner Theatre for a two-month run, and yes, there were a few little opening night bugs being worked out by the talented cast.

But considering the theme of the show – last minute rewrites, forgotten lines, missed cues –  any little bumps felt like we were being let in on the joke. French's biggest joke is that the actors whom we imagine to be giant packages of overinflated ego are, behind the scenes, quivering masses of insecurity.

"Jitters" opens with a scene from a brand new play (within our play) called "The Care and Treatment of Roses," with a cast of characters as sensitive as any hothouse bloom. There's Jessica (Susan Toomey), a "seasoned" actor who fears her best days may be behind her. She plays opposite Patrick (Guy Balotine), another longtime performer who fears he may have missed his best days altogether by staying in his native Canada.

Both are solid as a rock, however, compared with the wonderfully named Phil Mastorakis, played with dithery delight by Marc-Jon Filippone. Even Phil knows he has a problem, brushing off criticism from another actor at one point by saying, "He's trying to undermine my confidence. Well, the joke's on him. I don't have any."

So there!

That puts him a mere step ahead of young Tom (Lucas Lloyd), whose efforts to get his part right are thwarted by the ease with which Tom seems to forget he's supposed to be in a play. Lloyd has the best pratfalls of the show, made more eye-catching by his lanky height, which adds a foot or two to the distance he drops.

Emma Roberts and Connor De Junco have dinner before "Jitters," the show at Desiderio's. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Jeremy Kreuzer as George, the director, is the designated anchor of this crew, tasked with calming the waves and easing the anxiety, even while he feels his own nerves tightening like a noose.

The playwright (Brett Klaczyk) should be on George's side, but instead he is in a panic himself about suffering a "sophomore slump," with this, his second play. And George can't even think of getting backup from his obsessive stage manager Nick, played with pugnacious punch by a diminutive but dangerous Lenny Mendez.

Rounding out the cast are Katie Buckler and Alley Griffin, as prop and wardrobe "girls" who, considering when "Jitters" was written, do indeed seem to have come in from another time and place.

Despite the fears expressed by the "Roses" characters, the "Jitters" cast was quite comfortable remembering its lines and hitting its marks. Director Jay Desiderio has them moving easily around the venue's narrow stage and manages the exits and entrances with fine comic flare.

The rhythm was a little creaky opening night in the set-up for some of the show's many laugh lines, a problem likely attributable to this being the first show in front of an audience. Expect the pacing to even out as actors get a couple more performances under their belts.

Desiderio spoke briefly before the show about why he decided to present an "inside" comedy like "Jitters" to a dinner theater audience, when people who prefer to have their live performances paired with veal Parmesan and French onion soup may not be the most discriminating drama fans. His primer on theatrical terms was fun, though, and, as the show proved, so were his instincts in choosing French's broad comedy for this cozy venue.

Desiderio also makes the double-header evening work with two intermissions, excellent table service, coffee between the acts, and a tasty and tender pork osso buco served on risotto, among other hearty traditional entrees.

THEATER REVIEW

"Jitters"

2.5 stars (out of four)

David French's comedy showcasing the backstage anxiety that prefaces the opening night of a brand new play when everyone has something riding on its success. Presented by Desiderio's Dinner Theatre, 204 Como Park Boulevard, through April 15. Ticket price includes dinner and show, but not drinks. For reservations, call 395-3207.

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