Adultery is usually a risky if exhilarating business, especially for persons in elected office. Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards could fill you in on all the details. Across the pond the sexual misadventures of the prominent have long served as a basis for farce, beginning with France’s Georges Feydeau, who specialized in bankers caught with their pants down. Ray Cooney, Feydeau’s British acolyte, has set the action of Two Into One among Tory Party members during the heyday of the Margaret Thatcher regime (and, yes, there are some Iron Lady gags included). In keeping with the spirit of that era, Tory women are just as reckless and randy as the men.
Although Two Into One is making an area premiere here at Shoppingtown’s Central New York Playhouse, Cooney’s name has long been familiar in these parts and has happy associations with director Dustin Czarny. The first incarnation of his outfit, then known as Not Another Theater Company, opened two years ago at the cramped Locker Room with Cooney’s Run for Your Wife. The production, which featured David Vickers as a bigamist taxi driver, ran a furious pace with precise timing and accents, and went a long way to establish Czarny’s street cred. Run for Your Wife came right after three stumbling farces by other companies, reminding us that the genre is fraught with as many pitfalls as VIP adultery, yet Czarny’s version galloped.
To a degree, Two Into One builds on that 2-year-old success. Vickers is back with a plummier accent as a junior Home Office minister, Richard Willey, in Thatcher’s government. As his own set designer, Czarny has used the more congenial space in his new Shoppingtown digs to increase the number of slamming doors. At stage right we see a rather confined reception desk and lobby (there’s little place to hide) as well as an exit door for the manager and a sliding door with a bell for the elevator (or “lift”). Most of the stage is given over to sleeping accommodations, although it takes us a minute to realize we are seeing two rooms, each a mirror of the other with bath and bedroom, and an invisible wall running between them.
Richard and his cuddly, curvaceous wife Pamela (Kasey Marie McHale) have only arrived at the Westminster Hotel when they run into strident Labourite M.P. Lily Chatterton (Jenn De Cook), a prominent political enemy. There is no one around from Britain’s scabrous press, so if there is anyone who should not find out about anyone’s behavior, look out for Lily. Like Chekhov’s first-act pistol that must be fired, we know that Lily’s nose for dirt cannot be disappointed, a note of tension we cannot forget as the intrigues get under way.
Richard makes the first move. When a bespectacled Parliamentary underling named George Pidgeon (Justin Polley) arrives, Richard immediately demands that he book a room for 2½ hours this afternoon in the same hotel and to do it under the pseudonym “Easter.” That’s where he has planned an interlude of passion with a young cutie from another Tory office named Jennifer Bristow (Jennie Russo), who has already agreed to arrive on time.
Objecting that arranging assignations are not a part of his job description and also sensing the imminent danger of the situation, George struggles to get out of the assignment—fruitlessly, of course. While much of the humor in Two Into One is male-female, the central tension of the show is a power play between the two men, not unlike the template adultery-in-the-office comedy, Billy Wilder’s 1960 movie The Apartment. That means that while Richard gets his requisite share of laughs, he is—like the Fred MacMurray character—fundamentally self-centered, exploitive and blithered. Therefore, George, more like the Jack Lemmon character, must account for more of the dramatic heavy lifting, inventing cockamamie explanations for each successive ridiculous scrape they find themselves in while trying to save his low-paying government job. Along the way Richard, to keep pace as different ruses fall apart, has to speak in three different U.K. accents: standard, regional and Scottish.
He does not get to keep his pants on, however. Richard’s wife Pamela, considerably younger than her husband although they are married 10 years, knows very well who George is and turns out to have been harboring the sweets for him all along. As soon as her husband is “away for the afternoon,” she doffs her dress to make the most compelling pass at George when he happens into the room. As if that were not enough, when Richard’s intended Jennifer arrives, she quickly strips down to red bikini underwear to make her pass at George (thinking he is “Dr. Christmas,” not “Easter,” in more ruse slippage). Unlike other bedroom farces, which take a puritanical sneer at human folly, Two Into One reveals considerable expanses of male and female flesh and clearly embraces the carnality it also satirizes.
The five principals are ably supported by five more players, who stay strictly within their required British accents. Pam Shay Hipius probably has the least fun as the sour-faced receptionist, except that her straightness underscores the tension facing the schemers. Greg J. Hipius gets lots of zingers as the bellowing, self-important manager: “There’s far too much sex in this hotel, and I’m having none of it.” Crystal Rowlands’ otherwise thankless role as the maid is redeemed by a deft moment of bodily impersonation.
Two roles developing later in the second act (not that action was flagging) are written for scene-stealers. One is Garrit Vander Werff Jr. as Edward Bristow, the explosive husband (who knew?) of Richard’s sweetie-pie Jennifer. Most surprising of all is Michael Fernandez as the Charlie Chan-accented Chinese waiter, potentially a groaner for a guy with a Hispanic name who looks Middle American. Just as the character has more resources than we first perceive, so too Fernandez’s performance springs into action when summoned.
Czarny and company try to honor the pun-laden gags in the dialogue, starting with the phallic references in Richard “Dick” Willey, or “69” as the year of a vintage champagne, but wisely do not hit any of these too hard. Instead, the steady laughter in Two Into One is American-made. It flows from strong casting choices throughout, honed with rigorous, disciplined rehearsal. As the man said, it’s all in the timing.
This production runs through Jan. 26. See Times Table for information.