The title is not assigned in vain. Before the two hours of frenzied
action has run its course, most of the cast is at full gallop,
breathlessly dashing through the five doors. In that time there’s
scarcely a moment for the audience to catch its breath.
The plot builds on mistaken identity and thwarted lust. In a Church
of England vicarage in September 1949, a scolding, battleaxe
churchgoer, Miss Skillon (Rebecca McGraw), storms in to complain about
the latest outrages committed by the vicar’s new wife, Penelope Toop
(De Anne Dubin). The hussy is an American who was formerly on the
stage. Penelope’s singing lessons thunder in from offstage so loudly
that the vicar, Rev. Lionel Toop (Richard Hollis), can barely hear that
the old girl is furious that the wife has usurped her role in
decorating the pulpit.
By starting out with such piffle, playwright King is only baiting
us. Farce has an undeserved reputation for intellectual shallowness,
but we would not laugh if the action were only a squirt of seltzer to
mug (comes much later) or a crack over the head with a gnome lawn
decoration (an innovation in this script). Like the French master
Georges Feydeau or the top Americans, the Marx Brothers, King is
attacking the falsity of decorum, determined to have us see the raging
madman (and madwoman) hidden behind the blandest facades. For all the
laughter that See How They Run delivers in scene after scene,
it’s worth remembering that Agatha Christie staged several of her
murder mysteries in the same setting.
Consider King’s fate for prudish, priggish Miss Skillon. When she
returns to the vicarage unannounced (her bicycle makes no noise), she
comes upon Penelope and an old pal from the stage, Corporal Clive
Winton (Dustin Charles) of the U.S. Air Force, rehearsing the fight
scene from Noel Coward’s comedy, Private Lives. Eager to
go to the village theater with Penelope, Clive has jettisoned his
uniform for one of Lionel’s clerical outfits, black with dog collar. In
their ardor for completing the scene, Penelope and Clive knock Miss
Skillon unconscious. She’s worse off when she wakes up because she
mistakenly thinks she witnessed fisticuffs between the Reverend and the
Mrs. She then proceeds to drink herself blotto on the cooking sherry
and collapses in a body melt like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. Not
incidentally, she also displays her bloomers. Even after her body is
dumped in a closet, where she won’t stay put, her boozy resurrections
at the damndest times work their magic repeatedly.
None of this explains why most of the cast races around Carl
Tallent’s disarmingly tasteful set, nor are we going to here. The rest
of King’s plotting, as complex and precise as the wiring of a computer,
is partially intended to make anyone trying to summarize it sound like
a buffoon. There are two other clerical visitors, Penelope’s stuffy
uncle, the Bishop of Lax (Michael Schaefer), and the mild-mannered Rev.
Arthur Humphrey (Mark Bader), who suffers from an Elmer Fuddish speech
impediment (make that “Humphwy”). From the very beginning we have the
Toops’ saucy Cockney maid Ida (Annie Duckett), who provocatively holds
hot water bottles, inviting squeezes, in front of her breasts. And then
there are two late arrivals: a Russian-accented Intruder (Joshua
Murphy) holding a gun, and a local lawman, Sergeant Towers (Gerard
Pauwels), the necessary straight man in a farce who hears about
everything we have just seen and thinks it could not possibly have
It might be a stretch to call See How They Run a masterpiece,
but when not a single gag misfires, you can tell it’s coming on strong.
Philip King (1904-1979) was a prolific and commercially successful
writer of comedy. Run is his most enduring work, being made into a film (1955) and having been produced thrice in the Syracuse New Times purview,
once at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (1990). It was
originally produced in wartime, and Clive was a Tommy rather than an
American. Some jokes from the original script, like being offered a
plate of Spam, still work. Sergeant Towers is asked if he remembers the
Siege of Ladysmith (1899 in the Boar War), perhaps unlikely by 1949.
But, hey, no one wants to cut a pun-rich name like “Ladysmith.”
In the spirit that allowed King to change the German-accented
Intruder to a Russian one, director Thompson and fight choreographer
Nancy Kane have freshened up some lines and actions, without ever
breaking chronology. For example, where the script says a blow should
be struck with a fireplace poker, the Cortland Rep team substitutes a
decorative gnome that looks like the Travelocity mascot. It may not
look lethal, but it’s hard and can be swung. Besides, think how it
befuddles the receiver of the blow to try to describe what the weapon
was. Multiply this by 50 and you can see how some audiences might
assume that See How They Run has gained from improvisation rather than planning.
Additionally, playwright King, or perhaps director Thompson, wrings
British-sounding verbal humor out of lines that on the page are not
especially funny. Annie Duckett’s Ida is adept at this, as when she
introduces herself with an incomprehensible, “Oim-IGH-duh!” which
sounds like it might be a pagan invocation when repeated or even a
sexual invitation but is really, well, only her name.
Seasoned veterans dominate the cast, including romantic lead Dustin
Charles, a company favorite, as Clive, returning for his sixth
appearance, and scene-stealing Rebecca McGraw as Miss Skillon, last
seen in the boffo Damn Yankees last year. Michael Schaefer as
the pompous but oblivious Bishop has starred in two previous CRT farces
and played Ben Hecht in the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT)-winning Moonlight and Magnolias (2006). The threatening Intruder, Joshua Murphy, was a Scottish assassin in last summer’s Unnecessary Farce, a cast that included Mark Bader (Rev. Humphrey), who’s appeared in three other Cortland Repertory comedies and farces.
Tall, willowy and dignified De Anne Dubin as Penelope, an
experienced Shakespearean, makes funny by playing against type. And in
the least rewarding but most fleet-footed role as Reverend Lionel,
Richard Hollis, from the original London cast of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, doesn’t have to fake an English accent.
Farce is demanding: It’s only funny when it’s a first-class affair. The experienced hands and feet of Cortland Repertory’s See How They Run deliver the goods.
This production runs through Friday, July 2. See Times Table for information.