The enduring appeal of farce relies on
unexpected, explosive, preferably humiliating events. But they must be
framed in the most ordinary, familiar, even banal contexts. Thus we’re
only momentarily reassured to examine the set before the action of Unnecessary Farce begins
at Cortland Repertory Theatre. We see two adjoining, fairly shabby
motel rooms and seven doors. People will be using the beds in the
rooms, but they won’t succeed in making whoopee. We can look forward to
awkward arrivals, mistaken identity, panicky exits and much
door-slamming. OK, but that’s less than 20 percent of the tomfoolery
here. What separates this American farce from its French and British
antecedents is a surreal ambition to find hilarity in unlikely
places—like a tartan-wearing (that’s “plaid” to Yankees) gangster in a
No need to feel left out if you’ve never before heard of playwright Paul Slade Smith. Cortland Repertory’s artistic director Kerby Thompson, who’s also helming Unnecessary Farce, has a recognized gift for sniffing out what will work with local audiences. He staged John Cariani’s Almost, Maine two
years before it was booked at Syracuse Stage. Smith is a longtime, not
terribly successful professional actor, recently playing Elphaba’s
father in the touring company of Wicked. Unnecessary Farce opened three years ago in that cutting-edge burg, Lansing, Mich., but has since stormed around the country. Like
other actors-turned-playwrights, Smith generously endows each role with
abundant shtick. Every player, no matter how little time on stage, gets
a bravura moment.
Two less-than-competent cops, Eric
Sheridan (Dustin Charles) and Billie Dwyer (Crystal Rona Peterson), rig
a sting operation in an adjoining room. With a video camera barely
hidden behind a plant, they hope to tape a conversation between a
lovely accountant, Karen Brown (Morgan Reis), and the soon-to-arrive
Mayor Meekly (Mark Bader). If things go according to plan, Karen will
sit on the edge of the bed, in a direct line from the camera, where the
mayor will glibly confess to high financial crimes and misdemeanors.
Forever plaid: Crystal Rona Peterson, Joshua Murphy and Justin Theo Klose in Cortland Repertory’s Unnecessary Farce.
Smith’s spin of the cops’
characterizations contains foreshadowing whose meaning becomes evident
much later. Nebbishy Eric might be given to pratfalls, but he’s
resourceful under pressure. Shy, he’s never asked a girl for a date and
always waits for her to make the first move. Billie, who wears a
uniform on the stakeout, can’t resist exaggerating her record,
pretending to skills she cannot deliver. And she’s afraid of guns.
Somehow we infer there are no romantic vibes between Eric and Billie,
leaving her free for her own gags. But high-voltage power runs between
Eric and accountant Karen, who wraps her leg around him shortly after
they begin talking, and complains about the warmth (she will have lots
more to say about being in heat).
Following the plan, Mayor Meekly is
actually quite willing to spill every secret to Karen, if only he could
be made to sit on the bed in line for the camera. His dotty wife Mary
Meekly (Erica Livingston) can’t keep track of him. So the job of
preventing excessive mayoral candor belongs to Agent Frank (Justin Theo
Klose), the self-important guardian of city hall’s secrets. Klose has
the toughest role in the show: His Frank must deliver a lengthy stretch
of exposition whose logic comes from cuckoo land, and he has to make it
sound possible and amusing. He asks if Karen has heard of the Italian
Mafia, the Russian Mafia, or even the Greek Mafia, then declares that
the town is suffering under the depredations of an even more insidious
gang: the Scottish Mafia, run by a remorseless don known as “Big Mac.”
And Mac’s henchman, Todd, is expected soon.
At his entrance, tall, dark and
threatening Todd (Joshua Murphy) brings a presence that could mix it up
with Scorsese characters–until he opens his mouth. Out comes a
charmless brogue that might have belched out of one of the rougher
characters in Trainspotting. As Todd gets angrier the language gets thicker and we can’t pick out a word except to know that he means trouble.
Like other examples of the genre, Unnecessary Farce is
more about action than plot. As the action has been unfolding, doors
have been slamming and identities have been mistaken. Among the
riskiest and most delicious of these is an ongoing visual gag in which
characters of different genders get into wrestling matches over
possession of something on one or the other of the two motel beds.
Forget that this device may have originated with Benny Hill, because it
works differently live and in person. Director Thompson choreographs
each tumble on the sheets so skillfully that distracted Mayor Meekly
has every reason to think he’s happened upon old-fashioned rumpy-pumpy.
Over the summers, Thompson has been
honing his facility with farce, the infamously dangerous art form.
(Longtime ally Corrine Grover is cited prominently as assistant
director, good insurance for perfect timing.) In casting Thompson has
called in a host of reliables, including Morgan Reis (a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominee for last summer’s Leading Ladies), Dustin Charles and Erica Livingston. Critical to Unnecessary Farce’s
success is Thompson’s adroit use of the Edward Jones Playhouse’s
intimate space (this would get fewer laughs in a larger theater) and
his top team of Carl Tallent’s wonderfully tacky set, Kathryn Furst’s
rapidly changing lighting design, and Wendi Zea’s costumes, where the
tartan is worn above and below.
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 1. See Times Table for information.