See How They Run by Philip King. Directed by Jeff Steitzer.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"One man’s pajamas is another man’s night-shirt."
Jeff Brooks in Act III; photo: Kevin Sprague
Farce depends on perfect timing, five doors and a cast of perfectly normal people who can become extraordinary to us and to one another, extraordinary and unbelievably funny. On the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street Theatre in Pittsfield, one of the classic British farces is being given a perfectly timed performance. Each and every actor has a perfect entrance and/or exit every so often and on a set that seems solid enough to actually inhabit the timing of doors opening and closing is superbly coordinated. Each actor is so well trained for this show that nothing comes across as wrongly conceived, wrongly staged or wrongly written. Instead the naturalness of the piece allows the comedy to shine through no matter how outrageous, bizarre or foolish the moment may seem when you analyze it.
Luckily, in good farce, there is no time for analysis even when a character in front of you is trying to do just that. This 1943 treasure puts forth its bounties and asks us to leave analysis for more serious works. It does this in such a straightforward way that we can even accept the most unreasonable reasons. And - this is a wonderful thing to say - the comedy is not merely physical but is also deliciously quotable in a storyline that makes the absurd seem plausible.
The Reverend Toop’s wife, a former actress, is found by her former leading man, now a soldier and the two go off to see a production of Noel Coward’s play "Private Lives" which leaves the Toop’s home, the vicarage, open for all sorts of visitors and intruders. Toop himself is out leading a choral group on a prison visit one town away. When he leaves the prison so does a German prisoner of war. The wife’s uncle, a Bishop, is coming for a visit and so is another clergyman who is taking Toop’s spot on the following morning’s church service. A faithful parishioner, upset that Toop’s wife has replaced her in his affections and in her alter-guild duties, shows up and the Maid would just like a nice night off and a date. When everyone shows up at the vicarage at the same time, that is Farce.
Coward’s comedy from 1930 figures more openly in the plot than just the mention of its name. One of its funniest lines (don’t quote this out of context, though) is "Don’t quibble, Sybil!" In this play it is tortured into the equally hilarious "Don’t bicker, Vicar!" Both lines really do bring the house down when you hear them in their proper venue. The play also quotes one of the most famous scenes in all British theater, one that was hit hard by the censors and only allowed on stage after Coward and his co-star Gertrude Lawrence auditioned the whole thing in the censor’s office. It is, here, the funniest moment in the first act (or first scene in this version).
Thankfully there is still the second act and third act to go. A remarkable cast offers this work in the best way possible, sincerely played and openly amusing. The Reverend Lionel Toop is played by Cary Donaldson with just enough starch in his collar to be realistically believable. He comes out the other end of the play, having been seen in outrageous underclothes for a good long while, with dignity and hopefulness in abundance. The intruder, who pretends to be Toop for a time, is the handsome and appealingly off-putting Jim Schubin who has a knack for maneuvering people about with one simple gesture while making a threatening look rather sweet.
Penelope Toop, the wife in question, is played with grace, vigor and a very "English" manner by Lisa McCormick who uses the word "chuffed" correctly in this program bio (you’ll have to look it up, but it works). She is blonde and beautiful, plays with enthusiasm and force but can still be charming and feminine and extraordinarily vague when handed every visual clue in the book about the goings on in her house. As her uncle, the Bishop of Lax, Keith Jochim turns in a fine characterization of the British Blunderer who cannot believe that bad things happen to good people. He is almost unintentionally funny with lines that should only make an actor blush. He has that sort of delivery.
Jeff Brooks is hilarious as the visiting minister Arthur Humphrey. His entrance is turned into a veritable twirl of delight and his reaction to becoming the center of attention is endearingly physical. Andy Nogasky makes his Sergeant Towers into a tower of over-trained strengths.
Cary Donaldson and Jim Schubin; photo: Kevin Sprague
Michele Tauber, Michael Brusasco, Dina Thomas; photo: Kevin Sprague
The trio of humor, the threesome of laughter, the best of the best are Dina Thomas as Ida, the maid, Michele Tauber as the outraged Miss Skillon and Michael Brusasco as Lance-Corporal Clive Winton. If this show only needed three superb farceurs these would be the ones everybody would pick.
Dina Thomas starts out struggling with a huge tea-tray and ends up lugging around the bodies, miming the big hints, braying the love scenes and saving the day in her own peculiar way. Her accent is thick and hard to make out at times, but absolutely right for an occupant of the town of Merton-cum-Middlewick. When she babbles to herself she is as funny as at any other time. When she flirts she does so with a commoner’s placement. When she serves her employers she serves with every ounce of energy imaginable. Thomas’ stamina is worthy of an award and she never deserts her smile which is overwhelming.
Michele Tauber could play this role for the rest of her life. Her transition from stuffy, angry member of the community whose outrage is equaled by her bulk to offended, hidden, drunken slut is about a funny as anything could possibly be in this world. Tauber has an almost magical way with her role, constantly converting herself from one sort of person to another and doing so without any awkward pauses, without any unbelievable instances. This is a highly dangerous role made totally believable by an actress whose talent is clearly noted.
Finally, Michael Brusasco presents a picture of the British dilemma: knowing how to behave and just not achieving it. He plays an actor, traditionally not the brightest profession, and he plays it to a tee. When confronted about his behavior by the Bishop he manages the line "It can’t amount to tantamount to slaughter" with clarity, lightness and a curious appropriateness. Handsome, but with a funny, malleable face, Brusasco is the evening’s champion.
Everyone here has had superb guidance from the director, Jeff Steitzer, who clearly gets the necessity for reality in a farce. He never lets his actors stretch too far from believability. As the characters understand the farce they’re in to be a real situation so do the actors under his direction. Without that this play would be an oddity, something to ignore, but Steitzer and his cast have come to a fine meeting of the minds and bodies here and the result is a classically funny evening that the Marx Brothers would have enjoyed.
As for the production, it is perfect. Bill Clarke has given the perfect set. Sara Jean Tosetti has created the ideal costumes. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting provides the right ambiance for each moment. Ryan Winkles has choreographed the fighting moments to their utmost. Jessica Paz knows how to use sound to the play’s advantage and Steitzer has allowed her to do so.
I am always reluctant to recommend a farce because it just isn’t everyone’s thing. This time I recommend it to everyone. This is just that good!
See How They Run will play through August 26 at Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street Theatre, 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.