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Unnecessary Farce — Act II Playhouse

untitled (43)Silly, unpolished mayhem appears to be sum of “Unnecessary Farce,” the aptly named crime comedy at Act II Playhouse.

When Anthony Lawton and Karen Peakes begin the show as two bumbling cops who signal their ineptitude and unfitness for their assignments in their postures, walks, and voices — tone and speed of speech — your stomach sinks as if you’re bound to be in for a night of idiocy performed in a clumsy, forced style that threatens to make truly fine actors like Lawton and Peakes into shouting, gibbering messes that don’t behave in any recognizable human way. They become comic ciphers whose every other overarticulated movement and overplayed line is as unnecessary as Paul Slade Smith’s play admits gracefully — and accurately — to being.

The entrance of another reliable actor, Susan McKey, doesn’t help matters. Dressed in drab business attire and playing an accountant on a whistleblowing mission, she falls right into the overdone pattern of exaggerating every line and gesture Lawton and Peakes have introduced.

At this point, you just want to strangle director David Bradley for making three such talented actors look like amateur fools testing their wings in an unsophisticated community theater. Even when Lawton and McKey indulge in a highly recognizable human behavior, and McKey reveals the best part of her costume, you are not entertained by anything you see or experience. Smith’s plotting seems to be acceptable, and the idea behind his play is clear, but Bradley has taken the word “farce” too literally , or too unskillfully, and made all a chaotic jumble that has little definition and isn’t enjoyable to watch. The director has missed a major point, that farce works best when it’s played in earnest, unemphasized and on a realistic scale.

The words “we’re in for it” come to mind more than twice.

Matters improve when Tom Teti appears as a small-town mayor. Teti is as antic as any of his castmates, but he is different in making his portrayal and kindly doddering coot of a politician into an actual character whose comic business you can savor.

Unlike Lawton, Peakes, and McKey who race through their bits in hectically feverish dudgeon, Teti speaks in a slow, considered, and folksy voice. His movements and line deliveries are on a human scale. He gives his character tics and a personality, not goofy stage business that has no bearing on anything.

Teti changes the pace of Bradley’s production markedly, and the relative calmness is welcome. At last, one of the actors came up with an honestly funny comic creation that entertains and earns laughs. We can unfold our arms and begin to ride a little bit with “Unnecessary Farce.” Teti has relieved some of its badly conceived franticness by giving us a sequence to watch instead of to tolerate.

The effect doesn’t last long. Teti goes off in a befuddled haze, and the three-ring circus ensues anew. Another excellent actor, Akeem Davis, gets swept up in Bradley’s maelstrom, and we have more dopiness to endure.

Davis does provide one note his predecessors have not. His character, the mayor’s driver and bodyguard who is surprised when he doesn’t find Teti’s mayor with McKey’s accountant, responds in more classically comic manner to what he sees, experiences, and sets into action than we’ve seen the others do. He gives a purpose to his double takes, displays of power, and misunderstandings. Davis is an integral character in a play, not a marionette going through allegedly farcical paces. He looks competent and controlled. Which is all we wanted all along. No one is going to confuse “Unnecessary Farce” as a work of art or a romp on the level of Feydeau, Ludwig, or even Ray Cooney. Through the cracks you can see Smith provided a simple, amiable piece that is being played out of proportion but can work when brought to scale.

Luckily for us — and Smith — a passage comes in which physical business outweighs any talking. All of Smith’s exposition is out of the way and a different kind of havoc is demanded. The characters must all go through some fast-paced machinations that they negotiate and Bradley orchestrates well. The pandemonium is all to set up another scene with Teti, another scene the veteran actor aces and makes pay. Genuine farce has landed on the Act II stage, and whether it’s because we’ve gotten accustomed to Bradley’s style or are involved more in Smith’s intricate plot or find more natural human reality in Lawton and McKey, the play begins to flow more purposefully and sail more smoothly. It’s becomes watchable. You’re willing to go along with it if not yet to praise it.

Then something happens and turns everything for the better. Jake Blouch enters carrying a large plaid duffle bag and speaking in a Scottish brogue a Glaswegian would struggle to understand.

NealBoxComedy has arrived, farcical and palpable. Blouch, who we know to be a conscienceless assassin in the employ of a Scottish crime lord called Big Mac, is funny, will be funny, and remain funny for the duration of the show. It doesn’t make a difference that all the performances improve as the play proceeds. Blouch carries the day by doing what an actor playing farce must be first of all, blindly single-minded to his or her task at hand.

Named Todd, Blouch never veers from his nefarious purpose and gives a comic gem of a performance because of it.

Smith helps by making Todd a tad accident prone. Bradley helps by showing his mettle at making the physical parts of “Unnecessary Farce” work with effect. Doors are Todd’s particular nemesis, and Bradley has eight of them slamming and bamming with reckless abandon, all to Todd’s disadvantage.

Unlike the unnaturally high and hurried voices the first actors on stage used, Blouch uses his thick Scots accent to mine consistent comic gold. Best is when Todd gets excited, and his guttural, vowel-chocked words become unintelligible to all but Peakes’s police officer, who at least once has to ungagged to interpret Todd’s graphically murderous threats.

Blouch’s entrance puts Bradley’s production in new motion. Lawton drops a lot of the innocently-toned, boyish pitch in which he was delivering his lines. McKey’s discipline comes to the fore. Peakes, almost with visible relief, can slow her pace and let her character, Billie, be comic and integral to the action, instead of giddy and frenetic like a Barney Fife impersonator on meth.

Blouch gives us someone to watch and laugh at for the right reasons. Todd provides a villain for us to fear, comic or not, and to center the action around. By the time “Unnecessary Farce” convenes for its second act, the show has found a pace and tone that are pleasing. Blouch, Teti, and Gerri Weagraff, as the mayor’s matronly wife, take care of that. The entire production falls in line and provides honestly achieved belly laughs. I started the evening with rolling eyes and impatient dismay at the acting style imposed on otherwise excellent players. I ended it feeling fulfilled and entertained.

Go figure.

Credit again Jake Blouch. In addition to his impenetrable brogue, Smith has given Todd props and neuroses that add to the ways he can garner laughs. Dedicated to Scottish culture, Todd is an avid bagpiper who pumps up his wind chambers and tunes up his valves so he can play a dirge before he murders his hapless victims. He also wears traditional highland garb, meaning a starched white shirt, a bright plaid kilt, and a woolly Beefeater’s hat on his head.

Hootman, he is some specimen of a Scottish lad when all decked out in his kiltie with his bagpipes at the ready!

Blouch’s Todd motivates well-tuned farce. He becomes the catalyst that puts everyone else under control. Now at least if the other characters show agitation, it’s because their lives are in peril, and they have a reason for some hysteria. Teti wisely holds the perfect line with which he’s played the mayor from the beginning. Lawton becomes stronger and more competent because his police officer, Eric, now wants to impress the accountant who has awakened a long lost libido he thought was gone for good. Davis has always had purpose but now needs to choose allegiance. He fears for his job security and status as much as he worries about his life. McKey can be the assured actress hundreds of performances during the last twentysome years have shown her to be. She can demand some seriousness that seemed unavailable to her at the top of the show, and she can strip with the best of the Delaware Avenue dollies, and with much more class. Peakes finds comic ammunition in constantly being caught by Todd who binds and gags her, so Peakes constantly has to hop, mince, and mumble her way across the stage. She does so with aplomb. Weagraff joins the action in an engaging way, at first matching Teti at a doddering, out-of-it oldster, later showing herself as a gal with more than a few surprises, including her effect on the homicidal Todd.

Bradley’s second act delivers everything the first four or five scenes looked at if they going to overwhelm to the point of unsalvageable theatrical ruin.

Salvage Bradley does! Blouch, Teti, and Weagraff help him a lot, as does Colin McIlvaine’s set, which runs along the lines of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Hotel Suite,” using as it does adjoining rooms in a small-town motel as the scene for Smith’s farce. Mcllvaine has supplied enough doors with enough clout and enough resemblance of one to the other to let the frenzy proceed with brio.

From a production point of view, all ends happily. Act II’s “Unnecessary Farce” finds and keeps its stride, and merriment is the ultimate, and lasting result, thank goodness. One great touch, even before “Unnecessary Farce” gets it footing is Peakes, a police officer, walking with a plates of donuts and crullers stacked three-high. “It will be a long morning of surveillance,” she says with pride as she puts the pastry on a nearby table.

To give a brief overview, “Unnecessary Farce” is set in adjoining motel rooms at a modest, but possibly the best, hostelry in a small town. The mayor is suspected of embezzling $16 million, and the accountant who discovered his malfeasance is about to confront him with evidence of it. The mayor has chosen the motel room as the place for their meeting.

To catch the mayor in denial, confession, or dodge, the accountant has arranged with the chief of police to have her session with the mayor taped so it can be used as evidence at any future hearing or trial. The sting would be perfect, except the chief chose his two dullest officers to conduct it. Their wanting prowess as both crime fighters and audio-visual technicians threaten to scuttle their covert operation before it begins, especially after Lawton’s Eric and McKey’s Karen act on a uncontrollable attraction while Peakes’s Billie has the tape rolling. Several characters delight in watching that tape.

You can tell from all of these machinations that Smith had his wits about him when he conceived “Unnecessary Farce.” One can easily see why Tony Braithwaite, whose voice is heard as the police chief, chose this show for the Act II season.

The mayor comes in to find Eric and Karen in the throes of flagrante and retreats until a time that might be more convenient for Karen. Meanwhile, Davis’s Agent Frank comes to inspect the room for weapons and bugs and has his own flirtatious episode with Karen whose state of undress he mistakes as a come-on to him.

As random craziness unfolds, Davis informs the Karen and the police of the Scottish mob, its leader, the treacherous Big Mac, and its hit man, the bagpiper who turns out to be Todd.

The uproar and sexual hijinks, real and incidental, are abated once Todd arrives and his bagpipes are heard. Various characters retreat to various closets, bathrooms, and hallways to elude Todd or chase him. Meanwhile, Teti and Weagraff totter into the action occasionally in their nonchalant way as the mayor and his wife. Also, several characters know others and their place in what looks like the mayor’s scheme. The mayor recognizes Eric as a policeman, and Agent Frank is more than aware of Todd’s record as a contract killer. This raises the panic level, at least for Agent Frank and the others to whom he’s talked about Todd and his deadliness.

The introduction of Todd adds needed intrigue and comedy to the proceedings. You are nervous for characters that didn’t interest you once you think Todd might kill them. Then all of the funny traits with which Smith endowed Todd, particularly his inability to murder until he’s played his pipes and the garbled speech when he’s agitated, kick in and provide the alchemy that turns mindless twaddle into comic gold.

There’s a lot Bradley’s production could have done better. For three-eighths of it, our fervent wish is it will end quickly. One matter Bradley and McIlvaine need to think about is the placement of the camera that is supposed to record the mayor’s reaction to being accused of embezzlement. It’s too prominent. Anyone can see it. Of course, Davis, as Agent Frank misses it in plain sight until someone points it out of him. But that joke is cheapened rather than enhanced by the obviousness and size of the camera. The audience will believe it’s there without seeing it.

A major confusion is why no one thinks to disarm Todd by taking his gun on several occasions when it’s easy to wrest it from him. Let’s just say Todd is accident prone and is rendered unconscious more than once. Each time he is carrying a gun, and each time no one takes it, so when he revives he again has the gun to brandish as a threat.

What? Why? How? Even police officers as inept as Eric and Billie have to have enough sense of survival to take a weapon so easily obtainable from a villain who wants to kill them. I would have had Todd’s wrists broken, his knees hobbled, his teeth out, and his nose ajar given all the opportunities other characters have to neutralize him. I don’t ask for all of that violent disabling in a farce, but common sense, especially from the cooler Karen and Agent Frank, would have been nice. The only way around this is for Billie, or whatever character notices Todd passed out, to complain he fell in a position that precludes her getting his gun. Or something like that. I wouldn’t have mentioned this oversight if it happened once. But it happens about three times, and you have to wonder whether Billie, etc. want to live when they fail at something so basic that frequently.

For most intents and purposes, McIlvaine’s set works like the Rube Goldberg-maze it needs to be. Katherine Fritz’s costumes, especially the kilt and accoutrements for Todd’s Scotsman, are witty in addition to being appropriate. Someone might have thought of taking in the police uniform Karen Peakes wears as Billie. She swims in it, and the wrong size adds to the amateur-night impression one gets at the top of the show.

David Bradley does best in choreographing the frequent stage business, especially the scenes that simulate sex and confuse the mayor so thoroughly. Samantha Bellomo pitches in as fight director.

All’s well that ends well, and contrary to my initial thoughts, I can see audiences enjoying “Unnecessary Farce” as an amusingly amiable flapdoodle, which is all Paul Slade Smith intended it to be.

“Unnecessary Farce” runs through Sunday, March 29, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. 2 p.m. matinees are also scheduled for Wednesday, March 4 and 11 and Saturday, March 21. An 8 p.m. performance is set for Tuesday, March 24. Tickets range from $35 to $28 and can be ordered by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org.

 

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