Taxes and crossdressers collide in the zippy farce Love, Sex and the I.R.S.
By James MacKillop
It’s been a great year locally for playwrights William Van Zandt and Jane Millmore. Comedies by the self-styled “king and queen of New Jersey dinner theater” have flourished with Not Another Theater Company (You’ve Got Hate Mail, from last February) and the Talent Company (Wrong Window! from last April). And now Jack and Doris Skillman’s venerable Onondaga Hillplayers revive one of their earliest hits, Love, Sex and the I.R.S., as a dinner theater presentation at the Links at Sunset Ridge in Marcellus. Like so many VZ & M farces, Love, Sex and the I.R.S. builds on an already-proven comic premise. This time it’s Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt, about a guy who has to appear in drag to save his neck.
It’s not just about bringing the idea up-to-date, like having the unwilling transvestite wear red pantyhose to avoid having to shave his legs. Instead, the expansion of the premise in Love, Sex and the I.R.S. means that misrepresentation has become more widespread, even global. In this comedy hardly anybody is who he seems to be, and even the tax man is full of surprises.
At the rise of curtain we see a couple in a loving embrace. Lovely Kate Dennis (Mary Kate Migdal, looking ever-younger these days) is actually lying on the prone body of tall, hyper-masculine Leslie Arthur (Tallon Larham). As they declare their affection for one another, we pick up on the cue that Kate is engaged—but to someone else. Her intended is Jon Trachman (soon-to-appear Matt Fehlman), Leslie’s roommate. Among Jon’s many sins that bore Kate is his habit of referring to her as “Moonpie” (a word that will appear again, of course). The scene establishes three important themes. There are people for whom duplicity comes easy. Secondly, both characters have warm libidos, a useful property in fast-paced farce. And Leslie, despite the gender ambiguity of his name, sure looks heterosexual.
At his entrance Jon announces that he’s really worried about something else. He’s been cheating on his taxes for the last several years by claiming that his male roommate with the ambiguous name of Leslie is actually his wife. Worse, an inspector will be coming to the apartment to check out all the facts and expects to meet with Mrs. Leslie Trachman. That means Leslie has to put on a drag costume within minutes, complete with makeup, high heels and falsetto.
Some men, although masculine, have the fine features that could be reshaped to impersonate a beautiful woman. Zac Efron and Tom Cruise come to mind. Well, Tallon Larham doesn’t bring such a look. Walking on size 12 feet, he’s far and away the tallest member of the cast, with heavy dark eyebrows and shoulders and biceps that imply he’d be a wiz at arm wrestling. White cream on his cheeks suggests the promise that dark stubble will soon be sprouting through. Something resembling a falsetto does make its way out of his throat, but when he’s about to transmogrify his gender he goes through a low, guttural rumbling suggestive of Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man.
Larham, an English and drama teacher at Jordan-Elbridge High School, was previously best-known as the alternate lead in Salt City Center’s Jesus Christ Superstar in spring 2010. His madcap energies will be welcome additions to other companies.
Against all odds, the ruse seems to work, at least at first. The officious tax man, Floyd Spinney (John Seavers), keeps asking to see “Mrs. Trachman,” to which Jon responds, “Oh, you mean my mother? She lives in Chicago.” Leslie, Jon argues, retained “her” own family name, news Spinners hears with displeasure. On meeting he’s even unhappier, but he compares what he thinks to be an ugly, disagreeable life’s partner with his own wife. With this playwright’s device, every one of Leslie’s failures at impersonation is rationalized and forgiven by the tax man, who will eventually have more damning admissions to make.
Two other unwelcome intruders appear in the apartment. One is Jon’s mother Vivian (Karen Alexander), who must have heard her cue, even though in Chicago. She expects that Jon will be marrying Kate, and it takes some fancy footwork on Van Zandt and Millmore’s part to construct a scene in which this mistaken identity can be sustained for all the laughs it might provide. Once Vivian realizes that Leslie appears to be Jon’s wife (although not, of course, the ruse to deceive the tax man), she douses her shock and disappointment with vast quantities of Southern Comfort, leaving her laid out on the same couch where Leslie and Kate were indulging their hanky-panky in the first scene.
The second intruder is the nosy superintendent, Mr. Jansen (Daryl Acevedo), who suspects Jon may be violating his lease. There are so many opportunities for him to get the wrong perception, he can be assured to pick one of them. To revamp the character with the weakest motivation, director Robert Steingraber takes a guy who should be Scandinavian and turns him into a Rastafarian. Acevedo’s Jansen comes with dreadlocks covered with an oversize red, yellow and black knit cap, and his speech patterns suggest sustained indulgence with a certain Rasta sacred herb.
Given that Sex, Love and the I.R.S. was among Van Zandt and Millmore’s first hits and must be about 30 years old, Steingraber needs his saw and hammer in several other passages as well. It’s critical in the action that a USPS letter be delivered and ignored, unlikely to happen in an era when email and cell phones are nearly universal. Characters speak on cell phones but rely on land lines when they’re in front of us. If there were any dated references (Ronald Reagan? Gilda Radner?), they have been excised and replaced with a roundhouse punch about Bernie Madoff, one of the biggest guffaws of the show.
The Skillmans’ Onondaga Hillplayers is one of the longest-running companies in the area. Their once-a-year production always promises fun, a long dessert after dinner at the Links at Sunset Ridge. With Sex, Love and the I.R.S., they’ve gone and done it again.
This production runs through Sunday, Nov. 6. See Times Table for information.