A Company of Faces

at the Calo Theatre

Jon and Kate are engaged to be married in two weeks. Kate, however, has been having an affair (but without sex–that’s for after marriage) with Jon’s roommate and best friend, Leslie. Since Jon had a reputation back in college for violently jealous rages that included blaming the messenger, Leslie hesitates to tell him of their infidelity. Besides, there is the matter of Connie, Leslie’s estranged girlfriend.

But that’s not all. Jon, a chronically underemployed musician, has been making ends meet by claiming a tax exemption for Leslie–as his wife. And now a representative from the IRS wants to come and audit their books. In addition, Jon and Leslie live in an apartment building that does not permit unmarried couples and is run by a nosy landlord who keeps an eye out for live-in females.

Yes, we are on the well-traveled ground of the 50s farce. Never mind that Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. was written in 1979–when the society it portrayed must have already been considered hopelessly passe–this is a literary form substantially unchanged since the days of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. Since the days of Plautus, for that matter. It contains all the elements of the genre: the young man who must masquerade as a woman, the virgin who must masquerade as the vamp, the lecherous old man posing as a keeper of the public morals, the shrewish woman threatened with imprisonment, the mother making a surprise visit, not one but two characters–a young nerd and an elderly dowager–who get staggering drunk, amorous men chasing frightened women around the sofa, angry men chasing frightened men around the desk, people crawling out on window ledges, and the ingenue saying “Jon, do something!” every 15 minutes.

Despite the firmness with which authors William Van Zandt and Jane Milmore adhere to the familiar formula, the results cannot help but be a bit threadbare. Furthermore, Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. is not very well written, repeating gags from several other comedies of the period (most notably Neil Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl), and failing to recognize changing social attitudes toward homosexual men, heterosexual women, and tenants’ rights. (Though there is nothing in the play that could be called blatantly sexist or homophobic; Connie’s misgivings about having “driven” Leslie to transvestism with her dominating ways and a remark that Leslie, who’s hiding in the bedroom, has “come out of the closet” are about as reactionary as it gets.) The attempts at topical references range from feeble to bizarre. When Leslie gets angry at Jon for burning Leslie’s draft card, Jon shrugs it off: “What do you care? There’s no draft anymore.” Later Jon shouts out a speech that manages to be simultaneously reminiscent of Neil Simon and Woody Allen: “Guilt! I’m full of guilt! Now I know how Richard Nixon must have felt!”–which doesn’t even make sense. The script also contains internal inconsistencies that are apparent even on a first viewing: the landlord claims that it must have been someone from Jon and Leslie’s apartment who fell from the window ledge because their apartment is the only one above that of the woman on whom the person fell–when an earlier reference was made to a tenant who covered the hole in Jon and Leslie’s ceiling by putting a rug down on his floor.

But who cares? The success or failure of this type of play is based not on logic but on legerdemain. Ideally, farce should move so swiftly that its audience has no time to consider the implausibility of its plot or the amorality of its characters. In this respect, a Company of Faces comes through with the energy, stamina, and dedication to purpose of the U.S. Marines. David Franks is both threatening and charming as the tax man; Joel Pownall is both threatening and uncharming as the landlord. Brien Straw gives the thankless role of Leslie a batamweight, head-down feistiness (he also makes good moose noises). Isabel Liss as Connie and Wally Ruele as the justice of the peace seem uncertain of their characters–quite understandable, considering the ambiguities of the script–but they quickstep gamely. Connie Foster, though a decade or two too young for her role, does a nice Estelle Getty as Jon’s overprotective mother (is there any other kind in this type of comedy?). Maggie Cronin, last seen as Jesus’ sidekick in The Singer, and Warren Davis, last seen as the psychopathic janitor in Bingo in the First Degree, both play it straight and sweet this time as the hapless but well-meaning lovers. Director Jason Liss keeps the pace brisk and the traffic collisions few on the tiny stage (with only three doors–downright minimalist for farce).

Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. is as dissimilar as can be imagined from the company’s debut staging of the ecclesiastical allegory The Singer, and would therefore seem to have been a good choice, whatever its flaws, for the newly formed troupe’s second production. The play is also timely. As April 15 draws closer and the sweating and fretting grows more intense, one could do worse than go to see a well-staged no-brainer in which the IRS rep gets knocked cold by a young woman intent on protecting her virtue.