Meta-theatricality is wonderful on stage... when it works.
In Leonid Andreyev's short play Requiem, for instance, the set is described as "The replica of a small theatre." On one side is a stage, and on the other are puppets set up like an audience. The acton takes place on the stage within a stage, and at the end of the play the character of "Theatre Manager" has a long monologue, seen only by the puppets in the audience, and of course by the real audience watching the whole thing.
Requiem is a symbolist drama from 1916, very earnest and very dark. Yet a similar set-up is used by a play of a very different sort: Broadway's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Set designer Alexander Dodge placed upon the stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre another stage, an elaborate Victorian proscenium stage in fact, complete with footlights and a lush, velvet curtain. Since all musicals are highly theatrical, and since the play's imaginative Edwardian setting has its own sense of heightened realism, the meta-theatricality works wonderfully.
Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is based on Roy Horniman's 1907 novel Israel Rank, about a young man who murders a number of people in line to inherit a title, finally inheriting it himself. That novel was also the subject of a film with Alec Guinness called Kind Hearts and Coronets. The play was in development for years, and eventually made it to Broadway, no thanks to the holding company that owns the rights to the 1949 film. In spite of the fact the story is in the public domain, the company filed a baseless copyright suit against the show's creators. Thankfully, a judge threw out the frivolous suit, paving the way for countless audiences to enjoy the show.
Though I've been wanting to see the play for a while, it was only this afternoon that I finally got to watch it. I was certainly not disappointed. Freedman and Lutvak's songs are delightful, especially the opening number, "A Warning to the Audience," as well as "I Don't Know What I'd Do," a song sung by one of the protagonist's two love interests. That role, Sibella, was taken by Scarlett Strallen, an actor who impressed me greatly last year as Lady MacDuff in Kenneth Branagh's production of Macbeth.
What really struck me about this production, however, was Dodge's beautiful set. By lowering and raising the curtain on the stage within a stage, the crew can seamlessly perform set changes while the play continues in front of the false proscenium. Plus, while tables and chairs to the sides of the stage are basically realistic, the set pieces on the stage within a stage can look like painted flats. The more stylized set pieces fit right in, and they add immensely to the humor of the play.
Upon occasion the proscenium itself is used, as arms and faces pop out of openings, or the protagonist is forced to climb up its side. Even the show's finale manages to make use of the proscenium arch.
Broadway might be worlds away from Andreyev's symbolist drama, but it certainly has learned a thing or two about how to make meta-theatricality work.