All Things Entertaining and Cultural
From a theatrical point of view, everything is on the mark. Damon Bonetti’s cast hits every joke and gambit on cue and with high style. The dexterous Carl Nathaniel Smith is matched, and even surpassed, in agility by Mark Swift who can land in a lounger from practically midair and thrust the footrest into position within the same second. Zoran Kovcic brings his always precise oblivious deadpan to the proceedings while Susan Wefel endows the solidly middle class mother she’s playing with hauteur and overt flirtatiousness. Michael Fuchs does wonderfully as a bank examiner befuddled by all that proceeds around him. Allison Bloechl and Colleen Marker entertain nicely as a dominatrix and her helper. Brock D. Vickers is hilarious in a slew of roles ranging from cops to delivery men. Meredith Beck is properly pert and practical as a newlywed trying to launch her marriage in the wake of a demanding mother-in-law and an unintended shipping snafu that, under England’s prudish laws of the 1960s, can land her, hubby, and an equally innocent friend of theirs in prison for pornography.
Rehashing this in print already reminds of the possibilities of “No Sex Please” and the crisp, clockwork nature of Bonetti’s staging.
Yet for all of its abundant and interwoven gifts, Hedgerow’s “No Sex Please, We’re British” doesn’t muster exuberance or play with rollicking delight. It hangs suspended in a comic limbo in which much is funny but nothing puts you in hysterics.
A Hedgerow farce becomes a Hedgerow mystery.
Every necessary ingredient for success in in place. You couldn’t for a better set of key comic performances than Smith, Swift, Beck, Wefel, and Kovcic are providing. Bonetti’s stage business is planned meticulously and executed with scrupulous timing. Appearances by Vickers and Fuchs are spot-on. Bloechl and Marker provide a lot of fun because of the enthusiasm with which they practice their naughty trade. What could the wrench in this fastidiously oiled machine be?
The answer is the play.
No one expects Noel Coward, or even Neil Simon, from a vintage British sex farce in which all mayhem breaks loose and dire consequences are threatened but little of even the slightest objection occurs. Plots are intentionally silly, and danger, even multiple years in Her Majesty’s hoosegow, is hardly expected to result in any dreadful calamity. The point of British sex farce is to relax, have fun, and let the ridiculous wash over you as you enjoy the antics of the actors onstage.
All well and good, but Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott’s play seems too dated to let that happen. Bonetti and company may be the epitome of precision, but the plot, and plotting, of “No Sex Please, We’re British” seem so insurmountably inane, there is little even a crackerjack troupe of the kind Smith and Swift lead can do to give it tension, even of the ‘oh-oh’ kind you get from old sitcom. Bonetti’s gifted band is stuck having their artistry go for naught.
The cast is playing comedy. Foot and Marriott are not providing it in keen enough doses for any of their, or Bonetti’s, handiwork to matter. You laugh at and appreciate the excellent turns and sharp line deliveries being done before your eyes. You see how good this production is on many levels. But the hilarity is missing, “No Sex Please, We’re British,” even when the bank examiner utters the title line while being chased by Bloechl and Marker’s avid sex workers, is too flimsy and has too solvable a plot to hold your attention or keep your interest. You watch Smith, Swift, and colleagues in admiration. You see Bonetti’s art as a stager of farce. You don’t have a satisfying or truly funny story that matches the copious bounty that is otherwise being spread in front of you. Ray Cooney, come home. You are needed.
Bonetti and company are revved to ride briskly in a sparky vehicle, but Foot and Marriott give them no gasoline to boost their acceleration. Farce requires tension. Farce requires worry that a major character is going to experience loss or degradation he or she doesn’t deserve. Farce requires that something precious and valuable be at stake. “No Sex Please, We’re British” provides none of that. Even in this elementally excellent production at Hedgerow, nothing looms that genuinely or encroachingly threatens the safety and well-being of the characters. Vickers’s appearances as a police officer some promise that Foot and Marriott’s plot might jell into something you can care about or stick your teeth into, but those visits prove to be benign and fleeting. They never seem to hint at anything that could concern the audience for a character’s safety, even though it’s hinted that Swift’s character, as a suspected pornographer, could be sentenced to years in jail.
We never believe Smith’s character’s marriage, or his impressive job as branch manager for a major bank, is in jeopardy. We never think Wefel’s overbearing mother-in-law is going to destroy her son’s happiness by moving in with him and his wife for good. On the contrary, one of the few pleasures we get is seeing Wefel’s Eleanor wooing Kovcic’s well-to-do, widowed bank executive and him succumbing to her charm.
Nothing Bonetti has devised is overdone or underdone or badly done. “No Sex Please, We’re British” is a clunker than doesn’t have the mileage Hedgerow historically gets from farces by Ray Cooney and similar Brits. Its premise renders it much ado about nothing, especially 50 years after Foot and Marriott composed their work, when porn is accessed regularly on line and is, in most instances, legal.
Pornography, accidentally obtained and foolishly disposed of, is the crux of the play. Beck’s newlywed, Frances, thinks she has ordered sophisticated stemware and crockery from a reputable mail order house, but when Vickers delivers the packages which Swift’s Brian has signed for, they turn out to be cards depicting lewd scenes. One of the bits that transcends Foot and Marriott’s mundane story is Brian looking aghast at the contents of Frances’s parcel while slipping one of the frisky photo in his jacket pocket.
The panic deriving from the wrongly shipped porn doesn’t grab us because it makes no sense.
Yes, Frances and her husband, Peter, live above the bank Peter manages. Yes, his boss, Kovcic, enters and leaves the couple’s apartment with some frequency. Yes, Peter’s mother has arrived for an extended visit. And yes, Kovcic, as an executive, knows a corporate inspector is in the area and scheduled to examine Peter’s branch.
Porn would get in the way. It could make a nasty impression and lose Peter his job and the newlyweds their apartment.
This would be grounds for concern, worry, and tension. Except the dilemma seems so manageable. Peter himself tells what he, Frances, and Brian should have done when they saw the compromising cargo. Even as the box carrying the offending cards is tossed from conspirator to conspirator, and taken to hiding places that suddenly become inconvenient, the situation at hand doesn’t seem risky or precarious enough for all the fuss.
Foot and Marriott plot convolutedly enough to give “No Sex Please” constant motion, but few of the predicaments they devise spell any genuine peril.
The writers’ ideas are funny. Having the porn distributors misunderstand Brian’s complaint sending the two sex workers is a pretty good gambit. Having Fuchs’s bank examiner and the lusty lasses arrive at the same time is another good touch. So is Vickers coming to the door as a policeman just as the guilt-ridden trio of Peter, Frances, and Brian are staring in shock at a foot-high photo of Brian in the local newspaper carrying a composite sketch of a man suspected of dumping questionable pictures in the Thames near Windsor Castle.
I enjoy the hijinks more as I write about them, and remembering them, than I did while watching them unfold, however splendidly.
Smith, Swift, and Beck were conveying the concern and coming across as real people in a perplexing dither. Wefel, Kovcic, and Fuchs did well as the characters who suspect nothing but can catch their nervous children and employees at many minute. Bloechl and Marker gleefully thrust their services on whomever is near enough to be accosted. Vickers stirs up whatever peril arises by the suspicious looks he gives other characters. You just believe any apprehension on anyone’s part is misplaced. Instead of a well-made play, you see a well-performed, well-orchestrated romp that has the liveliness, humor, and physical bravura to entertain but is missing a story that warrants all the effort expended to make it sizzle.
Carl Nathaniel Smith is a master at farce. Rubber-faced and rubber-limbed, he can convincingly play the innocent victim while executed pratfalls, double-takes, and “think fast” action with unforced Van Dyke-like aplomb.
As Peter, Smith gets to mix leading mean suaveness with a worried employee’s anxiety about his job.
Smith plays all aspects of his role with finesse. As a businessman, who takes pride in convention, he looks handsomer and more in general command than in his past, more frenetic farcical turns at Hedgerow,
In Mark Swift, Smith finds a partner in farcical crime.
Bonetti gives Smith several occasions to show off how deftly he can entertain with shenanigans, but in “No Sex Please,” Swift does the heavy lifting.
Swift is the one who is bounced around, at one losing his pants in a fracas.
Brian is Peter’s employee at the bank, and as such tries to please his boss but gets frazzled when given the responsibility of removing the porn from the newlyweds’ apartment and finding a place to get rid of it.
Swift gives Brian an air of subservience. He is deferent to Peter, even though they are friends as well as colleagues.
Smith is a marvel at doing comic faces. Swift has more the look of one who is constantly immersed in fright, about everything.
Swift’s Brian lives in a world of anxiety. His sense of terror has him so on edge, he is a physical nightmare. While Brian might be clumsy, Swift plays his trips of the lounger and into other furniture as nimbly as a cat. The character may be accident prone and pushed about by others, but Swift can convey Brian’s awkwardness by being so cleanly and accurately acrobatic while portraying it.
“No Sex Please, We’re British” is Swift’s debut at Hedgerow, where he is now part of the resident company. It will be interesting if he shows the range Smith, Vickers, and Joel Guerrero have made a Hedgerow staple in recent years.
Zoran Kovcic might be the most reliable and quietly flexible actor in Philadelphia. No matter what kind of part he is playing, he always has the taste to know the boundary where the comic and realistic part of his characters meet. His line deliveries are consistently excellent and always illuminate the playwright’s intent and a production’s needs.
As Bromhead, the bank executive, he is gentle to his employees but retains a semblance of command and authority. As a wooer to Wefel’s Eleanor, he can be both gentlemanly and ardent.
Susan Wefel often sounds like Rosalind Russell, an English Rosalind Russell, as she bustles about her son’s flat testing her daughter-in-law’s patience. This is a grand Gorgon of a grande dame. Wefel’s Eleanor can put on airs, pretending to social class in she might have hard time being accepted. She can also relax in a way that is actually a sharp, calculated trap to win the attention and affection of Mr. Bromhead.
Michael Fuchs has a nice comic turn as Mr. Needham, the bank manager. He is especially good when every noise he hears brings him out of his bedroom to see if Mr. Bromhead has appeared.
In one of these sojourns, the encounters the ladies the porn dealers generously, if mistakenly, sent to Peter and Frances’s home. Allison Bloechl is quite funny as call girl who is in command of the operation. Colleen Marker serves as both great a great collaborator of and contrast to Bloechl.
Brock D. Vickers looks appropriately bored and indifferent as a series of delivery clerks. His ability to be menacing while playing a police officer sets up one the funnier and more authentically intense moment in Foot and Marriott’s play.
Zoran Kovcic designed a set that is decorative enough to pass for a young couple’s apartment yet has the space for Smith and Swift to execute their physical moments.
Kayla Speedy does a particularly nice job dressing Susan Wefel as her Eleanor goes in for the kill with Bromhead and found the right look for Beck’s Frances.
“No Sex Please, We’re British” runs through Sunday, August 23, at Hedgerow Theatre. 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 2 p.m. performance is schedule for Wednesday, August 12. Tickets range from $34 to $25 with some discounts for seniors and student. They can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.