The stakes couldn’t be much lower in “Mr. Pim Passes By,” a trivial comedy of manners that seems to evaporate into the ether while the actors are still taking their bows. Written by A.A. Milne in 1919, before his name became forever associated with Winnie-the-Pooh, “Mr. Pim” is being presented by Taproot Theatre as a bit of a theatrical rediscovery, since Milne’s several dozen plays are little-seen these days.
When the bumbling Carraway Pim (Chris Ensweiler) descends on the Mardens’ country home in southern England, he wins the family over with his absent-minded charm, but an offhand remark he makes about an acquaintance sends them into a tizzy. Apparently the deceased former husband of Olivia (April Poland) isn’t so deceased, meaning she’s a bigamist for having married George (Ryan Childers).
An uptight moralist, George is horrified by the thought of being in an illegitimate marriage and insists she return to her rightful husband. While he frets, Olivia learns more details from Mr. Pim and decides to use the whole situation to her advantage. George has repeatedly balked at the prospect of his niece, Dinah (Allie Pratt), marrying penniless artist Brian (Daniel Stoltenberg), but Olivia is confident she can now change his mind — and probably convince him to learn to love those new curtains he hates.
Taproot’s production is ably directed by associate artistic director Karen Lund, whose feel for the rhythms of drawing-room comedy is apparent in every scene. Even the telegraphed jokes hum thanks to her unflagging comic pacing, which elevates moderately clever material into something truly droll.
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Unfortunately, that elevation doesn’t extend to poor Ensweiler, a pro at playing neurotic characters. He’s stuck here in the thankless role of plot catalyst, Pim, who actually only appears in brief segments to jackknife the narrative before disappearing again. Ensweiler’s jerky physicality — reminiscent of a windup toy version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp — is fun; too bad he doesn’t get to play a real character.
The other four principals get more substantial roles, and no one makes the most of it like Poland, whose ostensibly guileless Olivia hides a sly, knowing side that sees her masterfully manipulating her anxious husband without losing the audience’s affection. Forget Mr. Pim; this is Olivia Marden’s show.