Excellent cast plays ‘The Absence of a Cello’ at Bowie Community Theatre

The well-written play is literate and humorous — a drama with some funny bits.

I’ve never heard of The Absence of a Cello, so naturally, I’m interested. It turns out, the play — about a brilliant but broke physicist trying to land a job at a big corporation — had a moderately successful Broadway run back in 1965. It’s currently being produced by Bowie Community Theatre at the Bowie Playhouse in Bowie, Maryland. Concord Theatricals, which licenses the script, calls it a “refreshingly literate comedy.” And indeed, The Absence of a Cello, written by Ira Wallach (who is better known for his novel Muscle Beach), is literate and humorous.

The show plays as a “dramedy,” which is to say, a drama with some funny bits. Its pacing, too, is more deliberate than the snappy clip of comedies. The Absence of a Cello is, however, an interesting change from old chestnuts like Arsenic and Old Lace, Harvey, or The Matchmaker.

Dana Fleischer (Marian Jellicoe) and Joseph Downs (Otis Clifton) in ‘The Absence of a Cello.’ Photo by Reed Sigmon.

The cast is excellent. Bill Fellows, portraying our protagonist Andrew Pilgrim, a laboratory scientist who needs a high-paying job, is sputteringly bombastic, looks the part, and has great vocal range. Rosalie Daelemans as Celia Pilgrim, Andrew’s wife, is lively and interesting to watch. Dana Fleischer, who plays Marian Jellico, Andrew Pilgrim’s independent sister, brings insouciance to the role, as well as unexpected fragility.

Eliza Geib, playing Joanna Pilgrim, Andrew and Celia’s collegiate daughter, who’s seemingly more conventional than her parents, communicates youthful confidence and steadfast loyalty. Ethan Bowling, playing Perry Littlewood, the business-savvy grandson of the Pilgrims’ neighbor Emma, is smooth and charming as well as stuffy and square.

Joseph Downs as Otis Clifton, professional interviewer, is the very definition of “oleaginous bastard,” and his self-congratulatory smugness is palpable. It is, however, Joanne Bauer as Emma Littlewood, a down-the-hall neighbor of the Pilgrim family, who steals the show. She not only has excellent comic timing; she has the best lines and a gift for silent physical antics.

Director Ilene Chalmers delivers good blocking to insert visual interest in what is an intensely talky one-set show. The movements are natural and make good use of the entirety of the set. She creates a believable family in a believable home.

Clockwise from top left: Ethan Bowling (Perry Littlewood), Bill Fellows (Andrew Pilgrim), and Rosalie Daelemans (Celia Pilgrim); Dana Fleischer (Marian Jellicoe) and Joseph Downs (Otis Clifton); Rosalie Daelemans (Celia Pilgrim) and Joanne Bauer (Emma Littlewood); Ethan Bowling (Perry Littlewood) and Eliza Geib (Joanna Pilgrim) in ‘The Absence of a Cello.’ Photos by Reed Sigmon.

The set, envisioned by Scenic Designer David Chalmers, is subtly done: it’s a pastiche of pieces that create a vintage, but non-decade-specific, aesthetic. It’s well lit and features an extraordinary number of doors. Occasional sound cues provided by Sound Designer Fred Nelson indicate the hilarity of the moment, in case we need the hint.

If Director Ilene Chalmers’ goal is to highlight the timelessness of the characters, the situation, and the interactions by dodging a decade-defining aesthetic, it works. Costuming is character specific but cleverly period-avoidant. Costume Designer Hillary Glass creates ensembles that could be appropriate for 1960-something, 1990-something, or right the heck now.

Bowie Community Theatre consistently produces well-written shows that you probably haven’t seen before. I applaud Bowie Community Theatre for bringing this novelty to the theatrical community. Mining productions of the past in order to give a show a fresh new life, making it relevant for contemporary audiences, is a significant undertaking. The Absence of a Cello has high production values and overall likeability, although the contemporary relevance is perhaps too on-the-nose for comfort.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions.

The Absence of a Cello plays through August 13, 2023 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM), presented by Bowie Community Theatre performing at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr., Bowie, MD, (301) 805-0219. Purchase tickets ($25 for adults, $20 for students/seniors 62+) online.

Parking is free at the adjacent White Marsh Park, which is a short, flat walk from the theater entrance.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged. See BCT’s COVID-19 Policy here.


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