Monday, June 8, 2015

Comedy, Verbal and Physical: The Beaux’ Stratagem, Hay Fever, & The Play That Goes Wrong

Member of the cast of The Beaux’ Stratagem at London's Nation Theatre. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

George Farquhar’s delightful Restoration comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem is about two young men, Aimwell and Archer, described as “two gentlemen of broken fortune,” who arrive at a scheme for setting themselves up, they hope, for life. Touring the English provinces, they trade off, one pretending to be a gentleman of means and wooing a rich lady, while the other playacts the role of his servant. In Litchfield, the setting of this comedy of manners, it’s Aimwell’s turn to be the suitor. He casts his eye on Dorinda, while Archer finds himself falling for her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sullen. Unfortunately, Mrs. Sullen is trapped in a miserable marriage to a drunkard and spendthrift whose only evident reason for making the match was his wife’s money. Farquhar’s play comments on the market society that produces such dismal unions; when Aimwell finds himself actually falling for the target of his “stratagem,” he repents his dishonesty and makes a clean breast of it to Dorinda. The play is lighthearted, though, even in its political background. The English and French are at war and the English are holding the French troops in Litchfield as prisoners, but the bonds they constrain them are silken ones: they’re free to roam about and enjoy the pleasures of the town.

The play was first performed in 1707, but Simon Godwin’s richly entertaining production at the National Theatre seems to be set later – the costumes by Lizzie Clachan are Georgian, perhaps just because the clothes from that period are more lush and the shapes trimmer and more flattering. (No one who sees Clachan’s gorgeous outfits is likely to complain about the shift.) She also designed the triple-tiered set, which is built on four staircases and doubles as the home of Lady Bountiful (Jane Booker), the mother of Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) and Sullen (Richard Henders), and the inn where Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and Archer (Geoffrey Streatfield) have put up in Litchfield. This scaffold-like construction is convenient for the frequency of scenes in which characters overhear each other’s conversations as well as serving as a kind of metaphor for the interplay of classes. Archer is playing the part of a servant (though, when Mrs. Sullen observes that his manners are “above the livery of a footman,” he covers the discrepancy by confessing that he was born a gentleman) and becomes friendly with Lady Bountiful’s valet, Scrub (dour-looking Pearce Quigley, who reads his lines in a tossed-off, lightly ironic tone that’s very funny), while flirting, in the early scenes, with the innkeeper’s amiable daughter Cherry (Amy Morgan).

Geoffrey Streatfeild & Pearce Quigley. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
Godwin is one of London’s brightest young directors. An Associate Director at the Royal Court and an Associate Artist at the Old Vic, he was nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Best Newcomer in 2010 for his work on Nick Payne’s Wanderlust and won the organization’s Burberry Award, given to an emerging theatre director, in 2012. This is his third production at the National, and all of them have been winners. Two years ago he staged a breathtaking version of Eugene O’Neill’s seldom revived Strange Interlude with Anne-Marie Duffy, and just before The Beaux’ Stratagem he directed Ralph Fiennes in Shaw’s Man and Superman. By comparison with those two ambitious undertakings, the Farquhar seems almost like a director’s holiday, but Restoration comedy is tough to pull off, even if Godwin makes it look easy. Godwin’s approach is to take all the early-eighteenth-century starch out of the text and emphasize the modern elements in it. The ensemble plays the language conversationally, placing soft quotation marks around the period conventions (like the musical interludes, and Scrub’s physical signs of affection for Archer); as Mrs. Sullen, Susannah Fielding emphasizes the proto-feminist elements in the soliloquy that ends the first half. None of these choices cheapens the play by reducing it to a blueprint for a twenty-first-century audience; like Godwin’s contemporary setting of Man and Superman, it shows off just how modern the work looks when you shine the right light on it. After a vigorous swashbuckling climax (which Godwin stages wittily on all three levels of the set), Farquhar includes a scene in which Sullen and his wife admit their incompatibility and agree to divorce that strikes a contemporary audience as altogether remarkable for its period. The bad marriage of the Sullens posits a sort of counterpart to the marriage of the Teazles in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, written seventy years later, but whereas that union (which is marked by a considerable age difference) ends happily, when Lady Teazle discovers a sweetness and capacity for forgiveness in her husband that makes her ashamed of her frivolousness and superficiality, the Sullens conclude that they simply can’t live together.

Fielding and Henders bring real depth to this scene. Overall Godwin’s cast performs admirably, especially Fielding and Barnett, who was last seen by North American audiences as Viola in the all-male Globe production of Twelfth Night. Aside from Quigley, I particularly enjoyed Timothy Watson as the French Count Bellair, full of slightly absurd pretty manners, and Jane Booker as Lady Bountiful, who dispenses homeopathic cures of her own devising, one of which generates a skillfully executed gag when Aimwell fakes illness so that he can get Dorinda to nurse him. Michael Bruce’s pleasing folky music adds another modern touch. The play glides by in an astonishingly speedy two and a half hours.

Michael Simkins and Felicity Kendal in Hay Fever. (Photo by Anthony Weate)

Felicity Kendal is a great technician, and when she half-strides, half-dances onstage in Lindsay Posner’s production of Hay Fever as the 1920s stage celebrity Judith Bliss, stretching her porcelain-doll face in a series of line sketches, her voice like the purr of an insinuating and insistent cat, her impersonation of that old-style kind of diva who plays a scene every time she enters a drawing room lends the worn show a reason for being. Judith was Noël Coward’s first comic heroine. He wrote Hay Fever as a response to the time he spent at the New York home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband, the playwright Hartley Manners, who expected their guests to fit into their eccentric lifestyle. It was his first play but it didn’t get produced for a few years, until the simultaneous runs of three other Coward plays – The Vortex, Fallen Angels and the revue London Calling – made him the toast of London. It’s a high comedy about a family of bohemians (the father is a novelist, one of the two grown-up children an artist) who drive a quartet of weekend guests to distraction and finally to sneak out the front door while the family, oblivious, sits around the Sunday breakfast table listening to David Bliss read the last chapter of his latest book.

Coward reworked that ending a few years later for Private Lives, one of his two masterpieces (the other is Design for Living), and he returned to this kind of more-or-less show-biz comedy of manners in the late thirties with the much funnier Present Laughter, where the hero is an impossibly demanding actor (played, in various American productions over the last twenty years, by Frank Langella, Victor Garber and Nathan Lane). The other play Hay Fever brings to mind is Kaufman and Ferber’s parody of the Barrymores, The Royal Family, which I also think is better. Hay Fever is a middling comedy with a few good scenes; Kaufman and Hart borrowed one of them, the party game that ends up making everyone uncomfortable, for You Can’t Take It with You. But it’s funny enough to generate a perfectly enjoyable light evening in the theatre, like the one Posner gave us in the West End two years ago when he revived Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking (also with Kendal). I’m not sure why this version is so tepid, though its energy may have dribbled away during the year it toured before opening in London. Only Kendal and occasionally Sara Stewart as the tart-tongued Myra Arundel seem to understand what to do with Coward’s language. When Kendal’s Judith objects to the fact that her son Simon (Edward Franklin) has extended a weekend invitation to Myra, who, she says, “goes about using sex as a kind of shrimping net,” both her intonation and the scooping gesture she makes with her hands imply a mix of worldly wisdom, vague world-weariness and a store of verbal invention so profound that the smallest foray into it is enough to wither the wit of any outsider within half a league. Franklin, by contrast, hasn’t a clue how to use the rhythm of a line like “I should like to kiss you and kiss you and break everything in the house and jump into the river” (to Myra) to bespeak a Bloomsbury-era brittleness and tendency toward self-conscious melodramatizing. Alice Orr-Ewing as his sister Sorel, Simon Shepherd as David, Mossie Smith as their comforting housekeeper Clara (a sort of variation on motherly Nurse Guinness in Shaw’s Heartbreak House), and Michael Simkins, Celeste Dodwell and Edward Killingback as the other three alternately ignored and put-upon guests are similarly lacking in distinction.

The cast of Michief Theatre's The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Alastair Muir)

In his 1949 Life Magazine article “Comedy’s Greatest Era” – a paean to the lost art of the silent movie comics – James Agee writes, “In the language of screen comedians four of the main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about the belly laugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills. An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.”

The Play That Goes Wrong , a Mischief Theatre production in the West End, contains more boffo laughs than any play I’ve seen since Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben brought The Play What I Wrote, their tribute to the great English comedy team Morecambe and Wise, from the West End to Broadway in 2003. The Mischief Theatre troupe are LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) graduates; three of them, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, double as writers and actors, and Mark Bell, who staged the play, taught most of them. The Play That Goes Wrong is a parody of the kind that Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca specialized in back in the early days of TV comedy and that The Carol Burnett Show picked up in the sixties, but here it’s sustained for an almost inconceivable two hours. There’s no plot outside the concept, which is that a ramshackle amateur company is presenting a murder mystery called Murder at Haversham Manor, and everything that could possibly go wrong does. Every actor on stage is stupefyingly incompetent, with the possible exception of Chris Bean (Shields), the director of the show, who is also playing the police inspector. One (Sayer) mispronounces words; another (Charlie Russell) thrusts out her breasts and vamps on all her lines to show that she’s a siren; a third (the irresistible Dave Hearn) grins and looks starry-eyed whenever the audience laughs at him. The actor cast as the corpse (Greg Tannahill), who is lying on a divan in the library at the beginning of the show, is sideswiped, stepped on and crushed by his fellow actors, and since the devices intended to ferry him offstage keep failing, he has to devise ways to get from one room to another. (There’s a study above the library that is theoretically – if not always practically – accessible via a kind of offstage dumb waiter.) The props are misplaced; the sound cues get screwed up. And the jerry-rigged set, which the anxious stage manager (Nancy Wallinger) and the exasperated lighting and sound operator (Rob Falconer) are struggling to repair when the audience walks in, falls apart by degrees, creating an expanding obstacle course for the poor players, who are constantly getting brained by doors and other scenic elements. (Nigel Hook designed the pop-up, self-destroying set.)

Nancy Wallinger in The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Alastair Muir)
The members of the ensemble are all staggeringly talented clowns who convey, minute by minute, the key undercurrent of the comedy, which is that these amateurs are literal-minded to the point of monomania. When the actor playing the victim’s best friend (Lewis, whose rugby-jock frame makes everything he does seem even more absurd) is saddled with the wrong props – a ring of keys and a vase of flowers instead of the inspector’s pencil and notebook – and the inspector calls on him to take notes, the actor looks dumbfounded for a moment, then pretends that the keys really are a pencil and pretends to scribbles on the vase. When, in the second act, he’s tangled up in a collapsed section of the set and there’s a phone call for him on the other side of the stage, every actor on the stage gets involved in a Rube Goldberg-like daisy chain to link him up to the phone. When the vamp skips a line in a dialogue with the best friend, rather than making an adjustment he goes on feeding her the next one and the next, so the exchange becomes almost surreal. (I thought of the moment in Singin’ in the Rain when the movie within the movie gets out of sync and the heroine and the villain are accidentally dubbing each other’s voices.)

Agee alludes to the silent comics’ gift for “topping the topper”: that is, when you think a gag has hit its punch line, there’s still one more level to it – and then, perhaps, yet another. The Mischief crew are geniuses at topping the topper, and also at surprising the audience, often with timing (they keep catching us on the offbeat) but more often by substituting the punch line we expect with something crazier – and then, when we’re used to that idea, by giving us the punch line we would have expected but now assume is the last one we’re going to get. (That is, they encourage us to outsmart them and then they outsmart us.) The evening is shamelessly, achingly funny.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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