Billie Dwyer pretty much sucked at her coursework in cop school, just as Mayor Meekly, her dizzified boss, got in over his head in politics. Meanwhile, big bad security guard Agent Frank frantically falls to his knees in prayer if anybody so much as sneezes at him the wrong way. Even Meekly’s wife Mary isn’t the mousy little thing she seems in Unnecessary Farce, the current entry from North Coast Repertory Theatre. About the only figure he appears to be is playwright Paul Slade Smith, whose handle on farce and farceurs is unerring and decidedly unapologetic.
Smith spent many years as an actor in the nation’s premier theater city (i.e., Chicago), absorbing firsthand the cardinal rule to successful farce: Play to the absurdities of the situations (presuming they’re absurd enough), and character development, at least in the audience’s eyes, will take care of itself. Here, director Matthew Wiener stole Smith’s playbook long enough to prove the point. By all means, this show is a textbook example of the genre, and if you can suspend your expectation of a mainstream payoff, you’ll see what I mean.
After that, the only question is a matter of taste.
Dwyer, a hopeless tomboy who played too many installments of cops ‘n’ robbers as a kid, shows her stuff (read: ineptitude) early on. She’s one of two bumbling officers on a case involving cooked municipal budget books – they’re hoping that city accountant Karen Brown can induce Meekly to bribe her into keeping her mouth shut and catch him in the act. Sounds clever, except for the way it’s handled; instead of secretly taping the coup, we get a load of Brown and Eric Sheridan, Dwyer’s partner, doing the nasty.
From there, it’s vintage farce. Doors slam, garments fly, bodies traipse in and out of bed, water pistols are brandished, identities are swapped, apple-cheeked Mrs. Meekly shows her evil true colors and a casehardened hit man’s Scots brogue sounds like something closer to Klingon. It all comes out in the wash here – never mind that the dry cycle doesn’t quite kick in.
Of course it’s mindless. But that’s the point, and the fun of it. Whereas mainstream comedy is more effective amid its rhythmic points of reference, farce is designed for the opposite effects – incoherence and cacophony, to name two. Its effectiveness lies in its ludicrousness, and therein it’s the litmus test for the most accomplished actors, who must fight every urge to build on their characters at the expense of the crazy story. One-note portrayals? You bet they are. But try keeping what amounts to a straight face as all that lunacy colors your world. Farce is much, much more difficult to perform than it looks.
But here’s where the “taste” part comes in: It’s also a desperately saturated genre. Everybody from Molière to Gilbert & Sullivan to Noël Coward to Philip King has been writing farce since God was about 3, beating a path to the public’s door and inadvertently taking the rest of the house with them. As funny as it may be, farce is hopelessly formulaic – a notion that besets Smith despite himself and his obvious way with words.
On the other hand, there are as many preferences for genre as there are butts in the seats – and for better or worse, farce has earned an estimable share of those patronages. Jessica John’s tousled Brown; Jacque Wilke’s dyed-in-the-wool Dwyer; Christopher M. Williams’ opportunist Eric; Ted Barton’s ditzy Meekly; John Nutten’s shallow Agent Frank; Dagmar Fields’ sociopathic Mrs. Meekly; David McBean’s jaw-droppingly hilarious Todd: All build an excellent case for the genre accordingly. Farce may not be everybody’s cup, but the actors’ culture of ensemble has created a very funny argument in its favor.
Marty Burnett’s set is tailor-made for the genre, what with all those doors and mirror-images. Just once, I’d like to see a scene design that doesn’t scream “farce!” – in fact, I just did, when New Village Arts mounted Stage Kiss last February (the first-act set was a pleasant surprise). The rest of the tech comports well, down to the matching bedspreads and wall art; costumer Alina Bokovikova was correct in dressing Brown a specific way (guess what color she’s wearing).
I’ve gone on too long about the virtues and demerits of farce, so I thought I’d let a local theater maven add a comment or two. “So many companies,” Ocean Beach’s Anne Goodale once told a local publication, “think they have to have a message. The plays never seem to be about [the situational] experience or about good acting or just the aliveness of theater itself — they all have to be about God or women or gays or blacks or some other cause. Me, I just want to have fun. I. Want. To have. Fun.”
Goodale would love this show, then, because she obviously understands the genre. She might have said farce is theater’s way of laughing at itself – and with a show like Unnecessary Farce behind it, that laughter marks a universally good time.
This review is based on the matinee performance of April 19. Unnecessary Farce runs through May 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $37-$41. (858) 481-1055, northcoastrep.org.