Run for Your Wife

Attic Playhouse

Caught in the Net

Drury Lane Theatre Evergreen Park

In farce as in life, we find comfort in the familiar. Of course writers of farce inflate everyday human interactions to impossible levels: doors slam and telephones ring more frequently than in any sane household. But actions and motives pushed to their most illogical heights become logical once again, and identities crossed enough times make the truth more engaging than any lie. Farce challenges us to cast far-fetched situations in ordinary human terms–no matter how ridiculous things get, there’s always something at the core that audiences can connect with. Sometimes a plate of sardines is an elaborate ruse to cover up infidelity, and sometimes–well, it’s just a plate of sardines.

No one understands this better than British playwright Ray Cooney. Unlike Michael Frayn’s slumming in the genre, which produced the funny but disingenuous Noises Off, Cooney’s work does not smack of ulterior motives, like poking fun at the conventions of farce. And unlike Alan Ayckbourn, a self-styled intellectual with a demonstrated weakness for overly intricate plotting, Cooney doesn’t appear to be sensitive about toiling within a “low” genre. As a result he’s content to keep things simple, a tactic that works. Cooney’s best-known piece, the 1982 Run for Your Wife, ran for eight years in London. And while his plays aren’t particularly literary, they are culturally important: in 1998 a panel at the Royal National Theatre named Run for Your Wife one of the 100 most significant English-language plays of the century, alongside works by guys named Shaw, O’Casey, and Stoppard.

Run for Your Wife has a retro sensibility that anchors it in the early 80s–the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when serious public-health issues jolted the public into rethinking sex, identity, marriage, and fidelity. In this morally conservative sex farce, a cabdriver named John Smith somehow finds the time to maintain two separate flats–and two marriages–in the neighboring London districts of Wimbledon and Streatham. With his convenient profession and common name, Smith gets away with his deceptions for years, until a good deed makes him a celebrity and two beleaguered police inspectors, two snoopy neighbors, and two increasingly suspicious wives set out to discover the truth.

The question of how anyone could manage this lifestyle on a cabbie’s salary remains unanswered. Or why a garden-variety adulterer would want to enter into two complicated marriages, even with a pair of women as forgiving and magnificently oversexed as these. And the play’s prevailing ruse is entirely unenlightened–in a running gag, Smith masks his infidelities by pretending to engage in “deviant” behavior, relying on the idea that it would be worse to be homosexual than unfaithful.

Still, each spit take, dick joke, and Dick Van Dyke-style pratfall makes perfect sense within the world Cooney’s created. Every line of dialogue is full of portent, and there’s a wealth of comedy in the characters’ goofy justifications for their actions. Run for Your Wife works in part for an unexpected reason: assuming a natural rhythm of predictability, it telegraphs all its jokes.

Of course, the sign of a good production is that it transports you to a place where you never have to think about these things. Attic Playhouse director David Belew must’ve rehearsed the show like a drill sergeant–his production is seamless. And despite the technical demands of staging a show with hundreds of cues, Belew and his cast give every one of the 134 or so pairs of entrances and exits (I counted door slams) absolute authority. On the night I attended, one door took so much punishment that the molding around the frame came unglued twice. Oddly enough, this chink in the show’s armor proved its defining moment–the hallmark of an unpretentious yet forceful production of an unpretentious yet well-crafted play.

There’s a joy in allowing yourself to be seized by the exuberance with which something is performed. And it actually takes a lot of work to present something this straightforward in its intended state. Belew’s production feels authentic because it’s in harmony with the script and at peace with itself–the cast and crew openheartedly admire their shameless yet timeless material. Attempting to give this show a brain, a pulsing heart, a conscience, and a soul, the Attic Playhouse clearly hopes to make Run for Your Wife something other than a rueful concession to mass consumption. That’s a tall order, and something every theater struggles with in the face of lightweight material. Judging by the paroxysms of unforced, unaffected laughter that seized the audience on a bitterly cold, otherwise hostile Saturday night, I’d say this company’s hit the mark on all counts.

A decade after Run for Your Wife closed in London, Cooney revisited his characters in a sequel, set 18 years after the events of the earlier script, which ends somewhat ambiguously. Despite Cooney’s presence in the cast, Caught in the Net didn’t fare nearly as well as Run for Your Wife had, closing after ten months. Part of the problem was Cooney’s inability to change with the times. Compared with Patrick Marber’s similarly themed Internet-age dark farce Closer, Caught in the Net–which follows John Smith’s teenage children as they piece together the mysterious similarities between their two fathers–seems feeble. And part of the problem was Cooney’s inability to let his characters age gracefully: they’re nearly two decades older but none the wiser–it seems the two wives especially have been trapped in a loop of stupidity.

But the real problem with Caught in the Net is the plot. Smith’s motive in Run for Your Wife was somewhat sweet: he married the two women because he couldn’t stand to break either of their hearts. Here he’s more selfish, concerned only with maintaining his perverse double life, which prompts him and best friend Stanley to concoct a pile of outlandish lies. Some of these cover-ups are modestly amusing: in one bit of slapstick that recalls commedia dell’arte, Smith disguises himself in a series of costumes–full scuba-diving gear, a Claude Rains Invisible Man getup. Most of the script, however, falls under the header of screechingly unfunny, intelligence-insulting tripe: I was soured on the rest of the second act after a grown man appeared to unzip a 16-year-old boy’s pants.

Director David Mink appeared in Drury Lane’s production of Run for Your Wife in 1991, and his warm program note–detailing his experience opening the show on the first day of Operation Desert Storm–suggests that this staging was motivated more by nostalgia than anything else. Admittedly, it’s neat to see how he’s adapted Caught in the Net to the constraints of an in-the-round staging–the entrances and exits must remain open, and the actors run down long aisles to take the stage. Mink’s cast is full of smart performers too: ShawChicago vet Adrianne Cury, as one of the wives, and Jack Hickey, who plays John Smith as a fitfully nervous rube.

But Smith’s final revelation–he admits that he loves both women because of the lunches they make him (an idea cleverly echoed in Robert Kovach’s beautiful set)–unfortunately encapsulates the play’s purpose. No matter how expertly it’s performed, Caught in the Net is a meal ticket, not a labor of love.