Harold and Maude

Ghost and Spice at Common Ground Theatre
Through Oct. 13

Sometimes it’s helpful to think of a stage production as an intricate machine. Careful engineering is required. Some of its moving parts are more high-profile than others, while many remain completely hidden from the outside. And precious are the few that run with zero friction.

That’s why a smirking Thalia and austere Melpomenethe smiling and stricken mask-muses of theaterinvented the rehearsal (well before that later contribution of Dionysus: the cast party). The fact is, a show never works perfectly the first time; pound for pound, the artistic process generates more mistakes than it does anything else. Most of them are discarded during the weeks before outside eyes ever see it, so that, in the words of Claire Porter, only the most interesting ones make it to the stage.

But on a bumpy opening night of Ghost and Spice’s production of Harold and Maude, the stage version of the 1971 cult classic film with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, plenty of friction still remained in the moving parts. Some of these were attached to actual mechanical devices on stage: the not-always-functional props by which poor little rich kid Harold Chasen (a memorably dour Ishai Buchbinder) stages a series of fake suicides. As in the film, most of these only succeed in traumatizing the help (an amused Amanda Hahn) and a series of arranged dates (Raven Whisnant) pre-screened by his self-centered semi-sexpot of a mother (vividly embodied by Melissa Lozoff).

But gears weren’t always meshing elsewhere on this first night out. When director Rachel Klem and cast couldn’t regularly find a theatrical equivalent to the jump-cuts director Hal Ashby employed at the peak of Harold’s self-styled little deaths in the original film, several scenes fizzled as a result. Actors repeatedly tripped over bric-a-brac on Jeff Alguire’s claustrophobic set, which suggested Maude’s funky digs much more than the Chasen mansion. And while we appreciated the wit in a live soundtrack upgraded from Cat Stevens to more modern fare, Whisnant’s winsome voice and Rus Hames’ guitar smoothed to a disconcerting sameness too many of the rough edges from the rawer works of Gnarls Barkley, Tom Waits and Bright Eyes.

We savored the interplay between Buchbinder and Darling (in a rare stage appearance by the retired UNC acting instructor whose distinguished career includes directing stints for The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Between-scene sequences in which Harold prepped his next trick before our eyes added delicious anticipation. But we couldn’t buy the pair’s getaway from a cop in the first act, and Harold’s immersion into bohemia during the secondincluding a one-toke excursion into potseemed rushed and cursory. Notable comedic supporting work came from a cast including Alguire as Harold’s psychiatrist Dr. Mueller, and John Murphy as a bewildered Father Finnegan.

Given this company’s usual attention to detail, I expect some of these issues will be addressed by the time the show reopens. But an unusually rough iteration on opening night was still less than to die for.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Young meets old.”