Watch your back, Barney. Beware, Dora the Explorer.

The cozy little world of children's television icons will never be the same if Mr. Felt can get his puppet posse back in action in "The Great Pretender."

David West Read, a cheeky Canadian playwright best known for the porn industry comedy "The Performers," takes us behind the scenes at a TV studio where a puppeteer is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife and partner in this gentle-hearted 100-minute tale. If the smart-alecky puppet comedy never reaches the heights of wit seen in "Avenue Q" and the drama pulls our strings a little too obviously at times, there's a lot of charm to this bittersweet marionette romp, which hearkens back to the glory days of "Captain Kangaroo" and "Romper Room."

Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) introduces Carol the Pony to Jodi (Sarah Moser) in the World Premiere of "The Great Pretender" at TheatreWorks, July 9 -
Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) introduces Carol the Pony to Jodi (Sarah Moser) in the World Premiere of "The Great Pretender" at TheatreWorks, July 9 - August 3, 2014 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. (Kevin Berne)

The hit of last year's new works festival at TheatreWorks, this small and nostalgic gem runs through Aug. 3 at Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre, directed by Stephen Brackett in its world premiere.

Brackett, best known for the off-Broadway hit "Buyer & Cellar," which soon tours to the Bay Area, is a savvy director who taps into the play's tart sensibilities, despite its somewhat precious subject matter. The juxtaposition of foul-mouthed puppeteers with childlike puppets is one of the show's funniest running gags.

When the earnest Mr. Felt ad-libs on the air that he loves the crunching sound that scissors make when slicing into paper, one of his fuzzy BFFs observes: "You need to get out more."


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Mr. Felt, a deadpan Mr. Rogers type played with delicacy by Steve Brady, is the unassuming alter-ego of Roy, who lost his wife in a car accident. Since she was a huge part of his creative team as a children's TV show host, Roy isn't able to get his groove back until someone walks into the studio who can echo his wife perfectly. Once he hears his beloved Frances puppet speak again, he never wants it to stop.

Sarah Moser imbues Jodi, the clueless newbie who makes all of her own pants, with an authentic sense of glee as a lost young woman who grew up watching the show. Read hints at the power of television as a refuge for an unhappy childhood, one of the many moving themes that is touched upon but never fully explored here.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of the production is how much more real the puppets can seem than the real-life actors. Read imbues the puppet scenes, particularly the poignant final interlude, with a genuine sense of emotion that is sacrificed in the somewhat cliche backstage bits.

The tensions between the naive Jodi and the show's grizzled veterans -- the shrill actress Carol (a pitch-perfect Suzanne Grodner) and the sensitive director Tom (Michael Storm) -- seem forced, and there's not enough done to flesh out the supporting characters so that they seem like more than showbiz sidekick stereotypes. Certainly, there's too much time devoted to a rehashing of a "Will and Grace" dynamic, which is amusing but doesn't propel the narrative forward.

Read also never quite motivates some of the characters' more aggressive actions. There's an unexpected kiss and a case of puppet beheading that seems to come out of nowhere. For the record, there is also a wonderfully random screenplay pitch involving a baseball-playing feline with a litter-box mouth that is so absurd, it's irresistible.

All of that aside, the play is dotted with moments of quiet power, such as Mr. Felt sketching out the scene of his wife's car accident and the way a puppeteer can express emotion with a small move of the hand. As a window into the magical craft of the puppeteer, "The Great Pretender" is the real deal.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza.

follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'THE GREAT PRETENDER'

By David West Read,
presented by TheatreWorks

Through: Aug. 3
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $19-$74, 650-463-1960. www.theatreworks.org