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‘The Great Sebastians’ a great effort

John Angell Grant
Tuesday July 31, 2001

Written in 1956 “The Great Sebastians” is an infrequently produced and not very well-known play by the famed Broadway writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.  

Crouse and Lindsay are best known for their book of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Sound of Music,” and for their book of the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes.” 

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, interested in doing a play that you probably haven’t seen before, is currently running a community theater production of “The Great Sebastians” at Live Oak Theater. 

“The Great Sebastians” is part comedy and part political mystery and intrigue. Set in 1948, in newly communist, post-World War II Prague, Czechoslovakia, the play features a bickering show business couple that tours Europe doing a phony, high-end vaudeville mind-reading act. When the English Effie Sebastian (Trish Tillman) and her Czech husband Rudi Sebastian (Dan Wilson) are invited to a communist general’s (Bradford Guthrie) dinner party to perform their mind-reading act, they suddenly find themselves tangled in a political intrigue. 

Actors Ensemble has mounted a decent community production of “The Great Sebastians,” though there are problems with the script of this lumbering and creaky comedy potboiler. 

For one, the central characters of the Sebastians are snooty, greedy, pretentious and dishonest, so it’s hard to like them, and hard to care about what happens to them. 

The story itself is an unsophisticated political cliché, with predictable story reversals, and filled with familiar jokes about communist bureaucracy.  

The device of phony mind reading, which is the couple’s show biz vocation, never really connects with the play’s political story, though it seems like there would be an opportunity to do that in this story of political illusion, if the playwrights had thought about it more carefully. Finally, the whole adventure ends rather abruptly. This Berkeley production grew on me as the evening rolled on, and I ended up enjoying myself. The experience was like flipping on the tube at one in the morning, finding an old black and white melodrama from the mid-1940s that I’d never seen before, and getting slowly pulled into the story. 

My early disappointment dissipated, and the obvious efforts and industry of 22-year-old director Rachel J. Hefler and her earnest cast won me over. 

Among the actors, Tillman’s giddy, snooty Grande-Dame-manquée Essie is the evening’s warmest performance. Her bottomless high-speed banter with Wilson has charm. Guthrie has some nice moments as the rough-edged communist General Zandek, who hires the Sebastians as a party act, perhaps to sniff out a traitor. Gary Dailey effectively creates two distinct characters in two quite different roles, one as a tightly-wound communist-party political problem fixer, and the other as a nervous, gushing theater producer. Will Green is an ominous, smarmy political officer. Irina Mikhalevich is amusing in a small part as a dizzy communist trophy wife. 

Because this is an 18-character play, you will likely never see a revival of this show at a professional theater, where the cost per actor is $600 or $700 a week for rehearsals and performances. 

Kudos to Actors Ensemble for giving Berkeley an opportunity to see a lost part of theater history right in our own back yard. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theater,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard” and other publications. E-mail him at