OK, so you’re Eric, a cop, played by Noah Schaefer, and you’re in charge of the highest-stakes stakeout of the year — the one which will get you off your desk duty and into the world where the real cops operate. You suspect that the Mayor (Mario Baldessari) has embezzled huge sums from the municipal budget, and have recruited a new accountant (Emily Levey) to meet with him in a motel room, where the two of them will go over their sums — in full view of the camera you have hidden in the ficus. But there are complications.
For example, your partner, Billie (Jenna Lawrence) is a stone moron — a police academy calamity who failed guns, handcuffs, hostage negotiations and everything else, but who has nonetheless won a position as a sort of apprentice cop. Secondly, you yourself are also a stone moron — besotted by love for the accountant, but unable to express yourself for fear of rejection. This you remedy in the play’s second scene, engaging in a half-dressed facetime (in the old-school sense of the word) encounter. Regrettably, the entire thing is caught by your video recorder.
Hizzoner sees it all, but as he seems to be about as perceptive as Goober Pyle, it is of no moment. More dangerous is the dread Scottish Mob — a tartan-clad clan (with a “C”, they keep reminding us) headed by the mysterious Big Mac and anchored by the fierce professional killer, Todd (Jon Townsend), who prepares his victim for death by donning full regimental regalia and playing a tune on his bagpipes. And then there is the appearance of that ferocious coward, the bodyguard Agent Frank (Christopher Herring), whose allegiances shift and buckle. Strangling and other attempts at homicide ensue. Strangely enough, whenever the Mayor or his sweet and broadminded wife (Karen Novack) show up, it seems that the murderous struggles look just like sex. Oh, my!
Well. In the best farces, the comedy flows from flawed but recognizably human characters, rubbing up against each other and irritating those flaws until they — and the ensuing plot developments — become ridiculous, and hilarious. Thus, for example, in Noises Off, the characters are vain, dipsomaniacal, petty, unfaithful, and not very bright, and with all these recognizably human characteristics in full bloom, they proceed to blast the dismal play that they are performing to new heights of catastrophe.
Unnecessary Farce is not a play like that. It is closer in design to Nothing On, the farce which the Noises Off actors are trying to stage, in which none of the characters are quite believable. It is very difficult to imagine a professional hit man who must dress up in his ancestral garb and play bagpipes before his murders (all the professional hit men I know are much more conscious of their time than that), but it is equally difficult to imagine a real policeman — even a stupid one — making out with a percipient witness while the hidden camera he helped set up is rolling. There is not a credible character in the lot of them, and the actors appear to know it: they bellow and go breathless in the style of a 1930s screwball comedy.
Having noted the weakness of Paul Slade Smith’s script, I must note that the performers make the most of it. The characters who are supposed to engage our sympathy — Schaefer as Eric and Lawrence as Billie — eventually do so, notwithstanding that their characters appear to have the IQs of toasters. (Lawrence does an outstanding bit where she rapidly translates the hit man’s incomprehensible Scottish burr; it leaves the audience in stitches and will affect you the same way, I’ll warrant). Baldessari, who has charmed audiences for years doing exactly the sort of character he plays here, does it again as the Mayor. Levey succeeds in creating a character who embodies two words seldom seen next to each other: sexy accountant. Herring and Townsend keep their evil characters safely on the ridiculous side of the ridiculous/terrifying divide, thus keeping Unnecessary Farce from becoming that theatrical unicorn, the thriller-farce.
Most importantly in a farce, the trains run on time. If a door is to open at exactly the right second necessary to knock a bad guy (or a good guy — this is an equal-opportunity farce) out on his back, it does. If the mayor or his sweet wife is to wander in at exactly the right moment when an act of attempted murder appears identical to the act of love, he does. If the characters in one room of Matthew J. Keenan’s sturdy two-room set are to utter exactly the same words as the characters in the other, in wildly different contexts (think of the varied uses of the phrase “oh, God”), they do. Ray Ficca, a master of physical comedy both as an actor and director, plays his hand impeccably here.
closes February 10, 2018
Details and tickets
And give Smith his due: although I wish he had thought this play through more effectively, he stuffs it with the funny, and it has been an enormous commercial success so far. Smith is a veteran actor with a string of comic (and dramatic) performances, and he knows how to make people laugh. In the production I attended, people giggled and snorted throughout, and there is a reasonable chance that you will too.
The bottom line for a play like this is: how long will it take you to enter the fictive dream? That is to say, how long will it take for you to stop looking at what is before you as that commercial entity, a play, and start looking at it as a story, which you can enter and enjoy? For me it took about twenty minutes, but your results may vary.
Unnecessary Farce by Paul Slade Smith, directed by Ray Ficca,assisted by Izzy Smelkinson . Featuring Jenna Lawrence, Christopher Herring, Mario Baldessari, Karen Novack, Emily Levey, Noah Schaefer and Jon Townson . Set design: Mathew J. Keenan . Sound design: Madeline Clamp . Hair and makeup design: Craig Miller . Lighting design: Dan Martin . Costume design: Liz Gossens . Properties design: Peter Mikhail . Allison Poms is the stage manager . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.