OUT OF ORDER
Candlelight’s Forum Theatre
LEND ME A TENOR
Apollo Theater Center
It’s no accident that two very funny farces currently running take place in hotel suites. Hotels are perfect settings for farce: even the classiest joints have an inescapable taint of naughtiness–hotels are where you go to do things you can’t do at home. And hotels have doors. Lots of doors, leading to all kinds of places, great for slamming, running in and out of, and hiding illicit lovers and dead bodies.
Illicit lovers and seemingly dead bodies figure heavily in Out of Order, an English play receiving its U.S. premiere at Candlelight’s Forum Theatre, and in Lend Me a Tenor, recently transferred to the Apollo Theater Center after more than a year’s run at the Royal George. Both productions also abound in manic movement in and out of bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, and hallways, splendidly timed for the maximum exhilarating effect on the audience.
But there’s more to farce than traffic management. Underneath the breathless action you’ve got to have stakes. Risk. Just as the only exciting roller coasters are the ones that make you think you might actually get killed any second, the best farces deal in deep and desperate psychic undercurrents–rarely openly expressed but suggested through such complications as mistaken identities, sex-role confusion, parent-child conflict, and the illusion of death. How well the comedy works depends on how well these elements are simultaneously denied and embraced–on the balance between escapist action and emotional need in the script and performances.
Out of Order and Lend Me a Tenor work very well indeed. They’re hilarious portraits of worlds in wild disorder, where the elegant surroundings of four-star hotels highlight the thrilling threat of disaster. They’re also coming-of-age stories in which insecure, developmentally arrested postadolescents become self-assured men by confronting and conquering outrageous circumstances and oppressive authority figures. This is farce as symbolic rite of passage.
Out of Order comes from the pen of Ray Cooney, the English hit-master whose previous works brandish titles like Not Now, Darling and Move Over, Mrs. Markham. This play might well be titled All Clear, Miss Worthington–those are the words Richard Willey calls out to his playmate-in-hiding when he thinks everyone else has left their suite. But Miss Worthington turns out to be Mrs. Worthington, and she has an angry husband to prove it; he’s hired a detective to follow his errant wife, but the PI looks to be DOA when Willey discovers his limp body on the window ledge. The situation is ripe for scandal: Mrs. Worthington is a secretary in the office of the Labour party and Willey is a Conservative member of Parliament. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.
To avoid exposure, Willey calls upon his prissy secretary George Pigden to pose as Mrs. Worthington’s husband; the deception madly escalates as the suite is invaded by the real Mr. Worthington, Mrs. Willey, and the comely private nurse of Pigden’s bossy bedridden mother, all of whom are soon chasing each other through several doors and one unreliable window. Nobody actually does anything–no sex, please, they’re British–but it’s not for lack of trying. The final triumph goes to Pigden, who overcomes his mama’s-boy timidity to fix the mess his boss has created.
Though the plot may sound silly and smarmy, the ingenious way Cooney layers misunderstanding on top of misunderstanding makes for reckless, uproarious comedy. As each new twist provokes an instinctive “uh-oh” from the audience, the play takes on the stimulating momentum of a car race. Cooney’s not a great dialogue writer, but he’s a master of unexpected, gorgeously timed sight gags–even that old standby, the dropped pair of pants, gets a startling new kick here. In the smoothly functioning ensemble, directed by William Pullinsi and Larry Wyatt, especially good work comes from Wyatt as Pigden, Dale Benson as the wily Willey, Bob Thompson as a dithery old bellhop with perpetually outstretched palm, and Blake Hammond as the remarkably pliable dead detective.
Lend Me a Tenor is both less and more concerned with sex than Out of Order. The characters in Ludwig’s play actually get laid, but their erotic encounters enhance rather than dominate the story. The hero here is Max, like Pigden the nerdy secretary to an overbearing fool–Saunders, the eccentric, embattled impresario of a regional opera company in 1930s Cleveland. Saunders’s misdoings aren’t erotic but ethical: faced with the apparent suicide of his high-priced Italian guest star on opening night, Saunders forces Max to impersonate the dead tenor in Verdi’s Otello. Though the terrified Max at first resists, eventually he rises to–and is transformed by–the occasion, winning the heart of Saunders’s star-struck daughter and bringing Saunders to heel while proving himself to himself.
Wittier if less viscerally funny than Out of Order, Lend Me a Tenor was disappointingly tepid in Michael Leavitt’s staging when it premiered last year. But it has gained tremendously in vigor and sparkle, thanks largely to the energy of its two current leads, which juices up the rest of the cast. As Saunders, John Astin does far more than provide a touch of TV celebrity: to the distinctive quirky mixture of goofy geniality and borderline lunacy familiar from his Gomez on The Addams Family, he adds a reserve of comic ferocity that establishes Saunders as a hilarious nightmare figure (one scene, in which he vainly throttles the Italian tenor’s limp body, reaches an almost surreal level of intensity). That creates interesting friction with David Bonanno’s Max, whose geekiness reads not as effeminacy (the way Gene Weygandt’s did in the production’s premiere) but as an ugly-duckling immaturity. Their interaction paves the way for a genuinely satisfying victory–and a delightfully entertaining show.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolock.