Prairie del’Arte Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

As anyone who’s ever seen Noises Off can tell you, journalist-novelist-playwright-screenwriter Michael Frayn has a gift for comedy. Or, to be more precise, he has a a gift for farce. Deep down even Noises Off–beneath all the theatrical in-jokes, the sly Pirandellian tricks, and vicious swipes at gawdawful sex farces–is a farce. (That’s what makes the play such a terrific postmodern joke: it deconstructs farces in a most farcelike fashion.)

But every great playwright has to begin somewhere, and for Frayn that beginning came a dozen years before Noises Off first opened: a quartet of one-acts collected under the title “The Two of Us,” two of which have been revived by the folks at Prairie del’Arte. Even in this early work the farceur is clearly visible. In fact, it’s the more complex, farcelike comedy on the bill, Chinamen, that succeeds, while the simpler, presumably easier-to-stage comedy, The New Quixote, pants, wheezes, and, despite the extraordinary effort of its cast, finally collapses in a heap. It’s no surprise that it was Chinamen and not The New Quixote that was included in The Best Plays 1973.

Of course Chinamen has a truly inspired premise: two actors, one male, one female, thanks to carefully timed exits and entrances and split-second costume changes, play both hosts and guests at a dinner party that goes horribly wrong when a jilted husband and his ex-wife (and her current beau) show up on the same evening. (The title refers to one character’s racist comment that all the guests are as alike as “Chinamen.”) As in the best farces, every attempt to solve the problem only inflates it–in a matter of minutes a minor gaff is turned into a friendship-threatening one. Frayn underscores the guests’ bourgeois conformity by having each actor play two or three characters–a chestnut when Georges Feydeau used it in A Flea in Her Ear in 1907, but still a wonderful satirical jab.

Rosemary Newton and George Seegebrecht execute Frayn’s play flawlessly, adhering carefully to the first law of farce: Don’t worry about being funny, worry only about entering and exiting on time. Both prove adept at playing more than one character, though, to be honest, both of Seegebrecht’s are a little cartoonlike, especially the nebbish Barney. Newton’s characterizations are more original, more self-assured, and she plays three characters: the hysterical hostess, Barney’s weepy ex-wife Bea, and Bea’s new boyfriend, an androgenous rock-club owner named Alex. Ted Hoerl’s direction is pitch perfect; he has a talent for farce I hope he exercises again soon.

Mary Bonnett, who directs The New Quixote, reveals a talent nearly as important as Hoerl’s: a gift for making the best of a bad comedy. The premise of the play is decidedly second-rate: the middle-aged Gina awakens one morning to discover she spent the night with an eccentric young man, Kenneth, who thinks (a) he loves her desperately, (b) she loves him as intensely, and (c) her protests to the contrary only prove his case, since he has a theory that we all want the opposite of whatever we say we want, think, or like. In his world women show interest by showing none and communicate contempt by declaring their love. Naturally it takes far too long for Kenneth to make his philosophy clear, and by then we don’t believe him and don’t really care.

I suppose world-class comic actors of the caliber of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh might be able to give an illusion of depth to this glorified sketch, but Anna Weiner and Brad Light, for all their energy and dedication–and they do work awfully hard for a few half snickers–never succeed in giving their characters an interior life. Light’s Kenneth is daffy but lacks the noble madness of the original Man of La Mancha. Weiner plays Gina without a hint of ambiguity; she seems so certain of her feelings from the beginning–she made a mistake bedding Kenneth and she knows it–that we’re never allowed to seriously consider Kenneth’s theory.