‘Heaven Can Wait’ clears early acting hurdles

The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of Harry Segall’s stage play, “Heaven Can Wait,” got off to a rocky start Monday night when the play’s co-producer and assistant director Mary Ayala-Bush had to jump into the part of Messenger 7013. She had only been given the part a few hours earlier that afternoon, and truth be told, she was reading the lines off a clipboard while ad-libbing the rest.

No matter, she’s a pro, and by the time you read this she’ll have it down pat. But it was touch-and-go opening night.

Even a casting glitch could not have derailed this lively production, enhanced mightily by the superb portrayal of boxer Joe Pendleton by Brandon DeGroat, who is a pro wrestler, movie actor and professional stuntman. DeGroat proves he can handle the topsy-turvy role with more than just his swarthy matinee idol looks. He knocks out the audience with his talent for boxing feints, jumping rope double time, sofa vaulting and stage-shaking pratfalls.

Historically the play is a familiar one that found its film incarnation with “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” starring Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains. Later it emerged as the Oscar-winning film “Heaven Can Wait,” starring Warren Beatty, James Mason and Julie Christie, and more recently Chris Rock starred in an adaptation called “Down to Earth.”

In this version our hero is boxer and erstwhile fighter pilot Pendleton, who is taken to heaven early by an over-zealous angel. When the mix-up is discovered at the Pearly Gates, the celestial doorman Mr. Jordan, elegantly played by Cal Whitehurst, promises Joe he has another 60 years to go before his number is up.

“Everyone builds himself through the power of the soul,” he advises, and the two go off in search of an appropriately athletic body for Joe to continue his blossoming career.

“I could put you in the body of a gnat,” Jordan suggests. But before he can locate the perfect athletic specimen Joe must assume the body of murdered millionaire investor, Leo Farnsworth, and it is as Farnsworth that Joe meets the love of his life, Bette Logan (Melissa Berkowitz), setting off an intricate plan to be together.

The play begins to breathe fire when Pendleton, as Farnsworth, reunites with his agent Max Levene (John Shackelford) to reschedule the pivotal fight that will secure his place in the pantheon of the world’s greatest boxers. But first he has to convince Max he is indeed the same Joe … albeit in a millionaire’s body.

From left, Colin Davies, Brandon DeGroat, Geoffrey Baskir, Michael Gerwin, Geoffrey Brand and John Shackelford star in “Heaven Can Wait” at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. (Doug Olmsted)

Shackelford and DeGroat have the ability to electrify when they share the stage — which thankfully is the heart and soul of this production. I can’t say enough about Shackelford’s beguiling brilliance in the role of Max, the agent who has one eye fixed firmly on his client’s newly acquired wealth and the other on his old buddy’s success.  He shows a keen sense of timing coupled with a canny ability to seamlessly morph from naive to crafty. His performance is nothing less than riveting.

If you’re up for a comedy rolled into a drama wrapped in a love story, catch this one soon.

“Heaven Can Wait” runs through March 17 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

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