Hotel bedrooms provide the backdrops for fast-paced gags in Unnecessary Farce
Bigger risks pay bigger rewards. Nothing you can do on stage, including Shakespeare, brings more risk than farce, even more from an unknown playwright. Add to that newcomers. Take, for instance, Unnecessary Farce, produced by Not Another Theater Company at the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice banquet facilities, 528 Hiawatha Blvd. Among the seven players in this show, one appearing on stage for the first time, the best-known is Kathleen Egloff (last seen as Woman No. 2 in Appleseed’s December mounting of Butterfingers Angel). Other players are new to the area, and one is on stage for the first time anywhere. But as in placing a $2 bet on a long shot, you have to cheer when this pony comes in.
Let’s get back to the play and its playwright. Longtime second-string actor Paul Slade Smith (seen last year as Elphaba’s father in the touring company of Wicked) has been peddling his stage works for years, usually to small regional companies. His Unnecessary Farce opened in Lansing, Mich., about four years ago, where it clicked—and later boomed. Although it has yet to appear in Manhattan, Unnecessary Farce has been raging around the country, including a highly successful 2009 summer run at Cortland Repertory Theatre.
Smith is what can be called a derivative playwright, drawing on reliable models like Georges Feydeau and Ray Cooney, as well as Benny Hill. As an actor himself what he really likes to do is to give each performer a chance to show off. In a sense, everyone is a lead. Everybody gets a chance to steal the spotlight. Even the most minor-seeming character gets a huge firecracker of a surprise.
The premise begins with a police stakeout in two adjoining hotel bedrooms. Two lessthan-competent cops, Eric Sheridan (Michael Shanahan) and his sidekick Billie Dwyer (Crystal Roupas) have set up a camera (barely hidden, we always see it) in one room while they monitor and record evidence in the next. Given that mistaken identity is one of farce’s surefire devices, the opportunities for things going wrong start at minute one. The cops hope to tape an incriminating conversation between an improbably lovely accountant, Karen Brown (Katie Deferio), and the soonto-arrive Mayor Meekly (Steve Rowlands).
The plan is to have Karen sit on the edge of the bed, and have hizzoner spill every incriminating bean.
Part of playwright Smith’s method is to give every character some shtick along with some anxiety that has to be resolved by the final curtain. Eric is a shy nerd, given to pratfalls, who has never asked a girl for a date and always waits for her to make the first move. Billie, meanwhile, wears a uniform where she should be undercover and keeps exaggerating her record, pretending to skills she does not have. Her frequent curses signal on-the-job frustration. It’s just as well that we infer no romantic attraction between them so they can bounce off each other for gags’ sake.
In the next room Eric gets quite a different reaction from the hot-to-trot accountant Karen, a dark beauty who could have stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. As her oncamera comments about the heat are supposed to be cues on the monitor of her impending danger, she gets right into the act by ripping off her blouse and wrapping one leg around innocent Eric.
Katie Deferio contributes more to the role of Karen than her counterpart did at Cortland Rep. Not only does she shed more garments (within the confines of a PG-13 rating), but she reveals herself to be that rarity: a genuinely glamorous woman who knows how to be really funny. Before Unnecessary Farce Deferio’s best local role was a Fury in Appleseed’s The Insanity of Mary Gerard last winter. Look to see more of her in the future.
The remaining four characters come in one by one, always presenting definite personae. Mayor Meekly, true to his name, seems more milquetoast than malefactor, and he’s ready to cooperate with the sting operation, if only he would settle down on the bed with Karen. Instead, he keeps meandering around so that even his dotty-seeming wife, Mary Meekly (Kathleen Egloff), can’t keep track of him. While the cops are trying to rein in the mayor, they are interrupted by a self-important guardian of city hall secrets, Agent Frank (Justin Polly).
Following playwright Smith’s aesthetic that every character gets a moment in the spotlight, Agent Frank has barely entered the scene before he gets the hardest job in the whole show. He has to give a lengthy stretch of exposition that is pure cockamamie and be funny about it, even before we’re sure who he is. It appears that the town is suffering under the depredation of a Scottish Mafia, run by a ruthless don called Big Mac. And Big Mac’s henchman is about to show up and his name is Todd.
Finding the bearish, red-bearded Casey Callaghan for the role of Todd is the major casting coup of this production. Quite apart from bearing more beef on the hoof than any member of the cast, he really does look like one of those brutes who are photographed throwing the caber during the August Scottish Fest in Liverpool. His talk is even better than his look: He starts out with an accent that belongs to a lowlife in Trainspotting. Scottish accents have been played for laughs since Shakespeare’s time, but Smith and director Meghan Leigh Pearson are asking for more. We can follow the “mickles” and “nawts” while Todd is speaking slowly, but as tension and agitation speed him up his language jumps into something completely incomprehensible.
Director Pearson, whose stock took a steep rise after Appleseed’s Parade last spring, rises higher still here. Not only do all eight doors slam on cue, but a running physical gag of different genders wrestling under the bed covers—only to be mistaken for sweetly savage loveplay by any clueless intruder—works every time. She drives the mad charivari between the two bedrooms at a feverish pace, but she sharpens the constant verbal humor. These turn on puns that are better than groaners. When a missing character enters though one of the doors, it’s explained than he’s just come out of the closet, to which the mayor, always pleasing to constituents, respectfully retorts, “My administration respects all lifestyle choices.”