Timing Is Everything As Pocket Sandwich Theatre And Stage West Go Broad With Their Comedy.
The season of farce is upon us. Two more big comedies have just opened for grins: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps at Fort Worth's Stage West and Unnecessary Farce at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. They join the still-running, lavishly funny Bach at Leipzig at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre (through September 18) and the cute Kitchen Witches at Richardson Theatre Centre (through September 5).
Here's what you expect in a farce: ridiculous situations, clumsy but charming characters, plenty of slamming doors and heaps of eyebrow-arching sexual innuendo. Some accidentally-on-purpose mistakes by the actors should happen, too, the sort of super-silly-ous business that keeps the audience on edge with the fear that it all could go terribly wrong at any moment.
Both of the new shows incorporate classic farcical elements, including the stuff going wrong, but only one of the productions manages to make it all feel like a breathless romp in the park and not a tromp through a muddy bog in heavy boots.
Pocket Sandwich's production of Paul Slade Smith's Unnecessary Farce isn't as pretty to look at or acted with as much professional polish as Stage West's 39 Steps, but it is laugh-for-laugh the better two hours of comedy. The 39 Steps could be a good two hours of comedy, but at Stage West it's two and a half hours long. Time limit for farce is two hours max unless it's Shakespeare and that's because 500 years ago people didn't wear wristwatches or fret about late-night traffic on ye olde highway. They wanted to hang around the theater half the night back then. Better than being at home, picking off plague fleas and waiting for the invention of the light bulb.
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Here's the funny thing about farce: When you're not laughing, and in 39 Steps that's too much of the time, it's easy to see where the laughs should be and aren't. The problems with 39 Steps start with the script, which was adapted by Patrick Barlow based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, with a nod to the 1915 book by John Buchan. The play is both tribute to and satire of Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic espionage thrillers, with lines lifted from the movies (familiar snatches of Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, too). As it tries to work in elements of old-fashioned English music hall clowning and quick-change comedy, The 39 Steps keeps tripping all over its own clever devices.
Only four actors appear in the show, which is set in the 1930s. Three play multiple roles, sometimes switching accents, hats and coats several times in a single scene. At Stage West, actor Lee Trull is the lead as tweedy British bachelor Richard Hannay. Bored and longing for "something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless" to take him out of his ennui, Hannay suddenly has the answer. "I know!" he announces. "I'll go to the theater!"
And off he trots to see a music hall mentalist act called "Mr. Memory" (Michael Corolla). A mysterious dark-haired woman (Cheryl Lowber) slips into Hannay's theater box, a shot rings out and the play then shifts over into a nearly pointless and often trivial medley of Hitchcock film chase scenes and romantic interludes, from Strangers on a Train to Vertigo. A girl is murdered in Hannay's apartment, and he's accused of the crime and hops a train to the Scottish Highlands to escape capture. There he encounters a slew of colorful locals (all played by Corolla and Mark Shum) and two more pretty ladies (played by Lowber), one of whom helps Hannay uncover the secret scientific formula being sought by the Nazis.
Directed by Jim Covault, Stage West's production has two quick, quirky actors in Trull and Shum (star of WaterTower's recent Mark Twain farce Is He Dead?, which he played in drag in a massive hoop skirt). The manic zip and fizz of their few scenes together are what the whole show needs more of. The drag on this affair is Corolla, an actor whose rhythms don't mesh with the others. He's slow on the uptake, allowing a three-Mississippi count before picking up cues. In comedy that's an eternity.
Covault shortchanges even more of the comic potential by skipping some of the visual jokes used in the original London and Broadway versions (and seen here in the touring company that came to the Majestic). Instead of shadow-puppet crop dusters for the North by Northwest chase (remember Cary Grant running from the planes?), he has Shum and Corolla stomping around behind Trull with two wooden ladders around their shoulders. The way it's staged, the movie homage is missed completely. And there's supposed to be a sweet piece of business in a scene atop a moving train (created with four old trunks and the actors' imaginative miming) that sends Hannay fighting a headwind as he jumps from car to car. No such magic at Stage West.
Choicest moment on opening night came at the climax of the second act (well past, yawn, 10 p.m.). Back in the music hall in a Man Who Knew Too Much sequence, the prop revolver failed to go off. Trull, thinking fast, yelled "Bang!" so the villain could die and the show could end. He earned a huge laugh for that superb bit of improvisation in a show that needs more comedic bullets in its chamber.
Goof-ups, planned and impromptu, are a big part of the good time that is Pocket's Unnecessary Farce. A cast of seven, directed by Pocket cofounder Rodney Dobbs, dashes breathlessly through a ditsy two acts of dropped trousers and mattress bouncing. The story hardly matters: small-town corruption, inept cops, a dunderhead mayor and his doddering wife, a sexy accountant helping set up a sting in adjoining motel rooms, plus a hapless security guard and a fearsome Scottish hit man who insists on wearing full kilt and playing a bagpipe before he takes out his target.
Dobbs' set, with eight doors, works well on Pocket's small acting space. The smaller the stage the funnier this show is. In the vastness of WaterTower Theatre, where they did it last summer, it was like watching farce played on a football field. In Pocket's intimate environs, when the actors get tangled up in bedclothes and handcuffs, there's so little footage for them to fall on, they have to get creative about it.
Unnecessary Farce's cotton floss script benefits from performers who can go big and broad with the physical shtick. Pocket's stars Ben Bryant, LisaAnne Haram, Charles E. Moore and Michael Speck expend a lot of calories flinging themselves against the scenery and throwing double and triple takes at each other and the audience. They're all terrific. Wyly brings her always enjoyable frantic madness to a wacky performance as the sexy accountant. Beau Trujillo is good, too, using an impenetrable brogue as the scary Scotsman. Only Staci Cook as a rookie cop with claustrophobia (she keeps getting locked in closets) is out of step, a few beats tardy on entrances and exits.
Props fall apart and the costumes are flimsy in the Pocket show (yeah, what else is new). But coming in under the two-hour comedy time limit (with a 20-minute intermission), this one's the farce to be reckoned with.
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