Royal Screw-ups

"Do you have any idea what it's like being English?'' John Cleese asked in A Fish Called Wanda. "Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing...We're all terrified of embarrassment." Understanding that particularly English phobia regarding public humiliation helps explain why a ditty called No Sex Please, We're British racked up an astonishing 15-year run in London's West End. Now onstage at the Trinity River Arts Center in an enjoyable but sometimes frustrating production by Theatre Britain, the 1971 comedy by Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot plunges six very British characters into a series of excruciatingly embarrassing situations. Almost all of them end with someone in his skivvies, blushing head to toe in shame. It's a true-blue Brit's worst nightmare.

Or, it used to be. The era of No Sex Please, and dozens of frisky farces that followed in the '70s and '80s, ended forever when they were sent up with a snarl by Michael Frayn in Noises Off, a much sharper backstage comedy about the goof-ups behind the scenes of a third-rate company rehearsing for a tour of the provinces. Noises Off manages to comment on the stupidity of No Sex Please and its offspring and at the same time show how wildly funny the farcical style can be when done with some smarts. Act 2 of Noises Off uses hardly a word of dialogue, just a madly choreographed sequence of slamming doors and actors tripping over each other, juggling a bottle of champagne, a plate of sardines and an ax, among other props. Done well, it makes the audience weep with laughter. (WaterTower Theatre stages Noises Off later this year. Cross your fingers.)

Unfortunately, the predictable choreography of the action in Theatre Britain's No Sex Please, directed by Robin Armstrong, only serves as a reminder of the superiority of the mad tango of comic tangles in Noises Off. Even as a period piece, No Sex Please doesn't offer enough of that Austin Powers wink-nudge kitsch factor to warrant a revival. The play's sexual repartee sounds positively quaint. In our post-Diana, post-Monica, post-Janet ennui, it takes more to shock and titillate than the sight of a cute girl in a miniskirt holding what one character describes as a "huge rubber cudgel." With nary a nipple in sight, No Sex Please is almost too polite. We prefer different punctuation in grown-up entertainment these days. No, sex, please.

The play finds newlyweds Peter and Frances Hunter (Kevin Grammer, Sue Birch) in post-coital glow, living in a spacious apartment above the bank branch stuffy Peter manages. Frances, trying to make pin money selling housewares, has accidentally ordered a vanload of Swedish porn--postcards, books and "blue movies" with titles like Winnie the Poof and Dick Turpin Rides Again and Again and Again. Peter flips. What will he do with all this illegal X-rated stuff?

The apartment fills with a parade of visitors, including Peter's strait-laced (we think) mother, Eleanor (Terry McCracken); Peter's toady assistant, Brian (Kevin M. Connolly); their boss, Mr. Bromhead (Mark Waltz); a fussy bank examiner (Bob Wasinger); a policeman (L. Edward Howard); and finally, a pair of bouncy prostitutes (Olivia de Guzman, Shellie Lynch).

As Peter and Brian attempt to ditch the dirty pix, they just keep digging themselves deeper into the porn trade. Later, amid slamming doors and near-misses, there are sleeping powders, mistaken identities and the appearance of that cudgel. Trousers drop, hookers are misplaced. Bouquets of flowers repeatedly are decapitated.

To sell this silliness to the audience, it's critical to keep the action clicking briskly and to goose every performance into hyperdrive. Here's where Theatre Britain's players really stumble. Instead of racing through their paces at a mad dash, leads Birch and Grammer take it at a leisurely stroll. Grammer's character Peter needs Basil Fawlty's just-this-side-of-breakdown edginess. Birch's Frances should be a gamine in the headlights. But the two actors go the other direction. They're just too laid-back for the crazy scenarios their alter egos are trapped in.

The sexier, funnier couple is McCracken and Waltz, who generate real voltage as the widowed mother-in-law and the boss, who turns out to be a widower on the make. When they swirl their brandies and head upstairs, this older duo look like teens sneaking off to smooch in the alley. They're adorable, like Mildred Natwick and Charles Boyer making whoopee in the movie version of Barefoot in the Park.

The actor who makes all the right moves in No Sex Please is Kevin M. Connolly as the harried assistant, Brian. He flings himself in and out of all those doors like his life depends on it. At the end, flopped in a stupor over a stool, singing like a drunken parrot, he's a plus-sized Art Carney, funny as all get-out.

Sex is always on the minds of the Plantagenets, the Medieval British royals in James Goldman's highly stylized The Lion in Winter, now onstage in a beautifully acted but poorly designed production at Stage West in Fort Worth. The year is A.D. 1183, and over Christmas, King Henry II (R Bruce Elliott) attempts to manipulate the line of succession among his three obstreperous sons: brave Richard (Matthew Stephen Tompkins), conniving Geoffrey (Lee Trull) and pimply John (Ross Neuenfeldt). Complicating Henry's plans are his imprisoned but still influential wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Pamela Peadon); his young mistress, Alais (Dana Schultes), who has grown up in the palace and has long been betrothed, much to her disapproval, to Richard; and Henry's chief rival, the king of France (Scott Rickels), who's Alais' little brother and a one-time lover of Richard's.

Yes, it's a regular Dynasty of a dynasty, and Goldman's clever, rhythmic writing keeps it zipping along. "What shall we hang?" Henry bellows. "The holly or each other?"

The Stage West cast includes six of this area's best actors, and they're in fine form here. Elliott, sporting a leonine mane of silver hair and a neatly squared beard, is a powerful and sexy "master bastard" as Henry. Tompkins makes a dark and brooding Richard, turning on the testosterone in his bedroom encounter with Philip. Trull and Neuenfeldt bring impressive verve to the roles of the younger princes, who must slither in and out of scenes like angry eels. Schultes handles the underwritten part of Alais with grace and intelligence. And if only we didn't know the cadence of Kate Hepburn's Eleanor so well from the 1968 movie, Pam Peadon's delivery of the play's best lines wouldn't sound so...studied.

So, acting-wise, The Lion in Winter is the cat's meow. But these wonderful actors must wander across the vast, dirty stage in the energy-sapping Scott Theatre. The set by Nelson Robinson/Stageworks surely was rented from some high school Camelot. It's too flimsy and unfocused for this professional production. Why those upstage stairs to nowhere that no one ever uses? What are those big white cones? The tiny plywood furniture?

Michael O'Brien's lighting casts all the actors' faces in deep shadows, giving them black smudges for eyes, like masks of tragedy. Long speeches unfold in lighting so dim the actors appear to be in silhouette. That at least keeps the details of the ugly costumes by Patricia Nielsen out of view. King Henry and his clan wear capes and boxy coats that look like cast-offs from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. None of the shoes are right.

The final insult on opening night was the sound system. Not sure why these strong-voiced actors need head mikes in a space where natural projection probably would suffice, but if they're going to use them, they need to be working uniformly and balanced evenly. Voices kept cutting in and out throughout both acts. Very annoying. The cast shouldn't be so ill-served by the tech crew. If they can't do their jobs right, off with their heads.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner