Watching a great sex comedy provides some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Watching a bad sex comedy is painfully awkward and embarrassing. The creative team behind Mr. Taken has given us something that sits solidly between those two extremes. There are things to like about this show, but, while not cringe-inducing, it also fails to evoke the passionate belly laughter of the classics of the genre.
Playwright Ward Kay sets out to create a sex comedy for 21st century America. By doing so, Ward situates his play in a long line that extends to the British sex comedies of the late 20th century such as Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw and Restoration comedies such as William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. In that vein, Mr. Taken is replete with characters who burst into rooms unexpectedly, end up in positions that appear more compromising than they actually are, and make surprising confessions that elicit low “oooohhhhs!” from the audience. As with any classic sex comedy, by the end it becomes difficult to keep track of who is sleeping with whom. The problem is, the show just never seems to hit its stride.
The play opens at the apartment of Jen (Jeannie Melcher) and Marcus (Dominic Shannon) on the night of an impromptu Christmas party. Within the first few minutes we learn that Jen’s long-term relationship with Marcus is in an unsatisfying rut and that the two are in couple’s counseling to attempt to overcome Jen’s controlling nature and Marcus’s arrested development. Jen lives vicariously through stories shared by her friend Patty (Brooke Bangston), who is casually dating “three, possibly four” different men. Among her suitors are the insipid Charles (Jamel Lewis) and a mystery man who is only “possibly” available because he already has a girlfriend. This mystery fourth man becomes the “Mr. Taken” of the show’s title.
Rounding out the cast pf characters are Liz (Valerie Holt), who sports a non-ironic Christmas sweater and is smugly engaged to stud muffin Eric (Andrey Chekalin). It is impossible to describe much more of the plot without giving away its surprises.
closes July 15, 2017
About those surprises, though? Some are predictable, but many are genuinely surprising. The problem is, they are surprising not always because of clever writing and staging, but because one can’t believe that two people with so little sexual chemistry ended up in bed together.
The script has potential. There are a few too many awkward places where characters’ lines feel forced because they are providing exposition or unnecessarily giving voice to feelings that could be more skillfully left as subtext. Overall, though, the plotting is clever enough to be successful and the dialogue has plenty of jokes that could hit.
Unfortunately, much of the humor and emotional impact is lost in the hands of a cast that feels quite green. While every actor has moments of good comic timing and confident stage presence, they more often appear out of their depth. Almost every member of the cast has problems with enunciation. Melcher’s mumbling is especially frustrating, as Jen has many punchlines that are often garbled by muttered delivery.
Dominic Shannon plays Marcus with such low affect that a break-up scene that has the dialogue to be incendiary is instead just “meh”. Lewis performs Charles with an awkwardness that is either a very confusing character choice or the result of a nervous performer. As Patty and Liz, Bangston and Holt come closest to the rapid-fire and bright delivery necessary for a successful farce performance, but because the rest of the cast never consistently reaches their level, it ends up feeling like they belong in a different show.
Also, there is that nagging problem of nobody having much sexual chemistry with one another. It’s hard to make a sex comedy work without that frisson of carnal attraction. Which is not to say the cast is not attractive. In fact, in the end, it seems as if perhaps they were cast more for their ability to look appealing unrobed than their confidence as performers.
Although Mr. Taken doesn’t feel ready for the big time, the seeds of a charming, entertaining farce are there. With a bit more experience under the belts of the actors and some edits to the script, this play could become a rollicking good time.