27 September 2003: Cooney and Chapman, Not Now, Darling

R & L Productions of Easthampton, performing in the Easthampton Town Hall Auditorium. Directed by Robert Laviolette and Mary Ann Scognamiglio. 2 hours 19 minutes. $10.00

You don’t expect American companies to do British farce well, even prof­es­sional American companies, let alone community theatre like this, but the results tonight were surprisingly good. Much credit is due to Rob Laviolette, who co-directed and played the central role of the much put-upon, innocent but balding Gilbert Bodley, co-owner of the furriers Bodley, Bodley and Crouch, the other owner being Arnold Crouch. Laviolette plays the character to the hilt, a ganglion (a good Gilbertian word) of confused emotions and desperate resolve with a genius for getting into situations over his head — but with a comparable talent for somehow surviving, minute by minute, when every minute would seem to be his last. His partner, Arnold Crouch, is played by Eric Johnson, who hasn’t nearly the knack for split-second farcical timing that Laviolette has; and so we lose some of the delicious effect, which might otherwise have been realized, of Arnold’s constant efforts to deflect the hostile arrows of misfortune onto his long-suffering partner. Indeed, the acting is a bit uneven, but mostly in the minor roles, where careful observance of cues and generally adequate timing and pace are enough to get them by. That still leaves some very creditable performances in the three crucial female roles: Mary Annarella (whom I saw this past summer as Rosaline in the Hampshire Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as Gilbert’s would be mistress Janie McMichael; Roxanne Labato as the floozy, blonde-bewigged and dumb as hell, Sue Lawson; and Louise Krieger as Gilbert’s not-so-faithful wife Maude. Louise played Phoebe to my Wilfrid Shadbolt in last November’s Valley Light Opera Yeomen of the Guard, a delight to work with because of her superb comic timing and flawless delivery, as well as a fine mezzo-soprano voice whose spoken dimension is as good as the sung — all of that in evidence here. (Louise tried out for Josephine in the current VLO Pinafore, which I am directing; she is, alas, someone who has aged out of ingénue roles, and she will soon be ready — perhaps is ready now — for comic heavies such as Lady Bracknell.) I congratulated Louise after the performance and said how hard I thought it was to get British farce right. She said Mary Annarella observed that it is harder to do than Shakespeare. She is right about that, in many ways, and it is a tribute to all concerned, but especially to the co-directors, that such a ship-shape production of a Cooney farce could emerge in the wretched circumstances of a half-painted, make-shift auditorium with horrible acoustics and borrowed chairs.

But for all that it drew a good crowd, of all ages from teenagers (who can’t be used to women parading around live in their underwear, chaste though it was, and simulating nakedness under fur coats) to seniors, who started laughing almost immediately and never stopped. Farce is a funny kind of animal. While it’s going there is not a thought in your head about what it may mean, you’re so busy following fast-paced action and laughing at every turn. Afterwards, if you think seriously about it — and why should you not think seriously about it? — You begin to speculate about whether farce is perhaps as profound in its own way as is tragedy, since it posits an unremittingly hostile world, whose mechanisms are perverse and utterly recondite, controlled as they seem to be by the most malevolent of all the Olympian deities — the ones who control the timing of human events. The only difference — or perhaps there are two differences — is that miraculously the human characters are rescued by their own blithe attempts to dodge the apparently inevitable misfortunes that dog their tracks; and that the pain and suffering so central to tragedy is removed from the subjective recesses of the human heart and projected into the physical world at large. The magnitude of the collision is the same; it’s only the site of the crash that’s different. In both cases, people don’t really know what hit them. But in farce, they live to err another day. In tragedy, they die of their wounds.

There was a moment later in the play when it suddenly seemed we had moved into a different generic sphere. No one else is on stage, as it happens, when Maude Bodley finds herself face-to-face with Harry McMichael — and we discover that they are former lovers suddenly and quite fortuitously reunited. They pause, and look at one another; and in that pause, too long, much too long for the safety net of farce, we see genuine feelings begin to surface. And it is as if, for almost half a minute (a very long time on stage), Noel Coward has made an unannounced appearance and crafted a bitter-sweet moment that makes for a nostalgic sense of loss, which just might be retrievable but probably is not. It’s a moment utterly foreign to the cogwheel ethos of a Cooney dramaturgical engine; suddenly (I have to keep using that word) the gears of Not Now, Darling get shifted into neutral and we have the momentary leisure to look out the window of this Hummer at the lowering sky and bleak, monochromatic fields of dark comedy. Did Ray Cooney and John Chapman really call for that pause? Or did the co-directors, finding it in the script, decide to give it more than its due? I’ll never know. But I found myself savoring that moment in wanting the ghost of Coward to write half an act’s worth of dialogue in which two people are suddenly confronted with the unaccountable passage of time and what it has done to wreck their hopes. There are few things sadder than pleasures lost and remembered too late. All that, I felt, in that over-long moment of very un-farce-like recognition, ironically reinforcing my conviction that farce is fantasy mechanized and dehistoricized, a pleasant interlude violently inserted into the otherwise relentless march we make toward mere oblivion, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans (here the requisite gesture toward the private parts) everything.

I think I am feeling my mortality over-much these days. Maybe I’d best take in a play — Bob Newhart’s advice, as Abraham Lincoln’s press agent, to a tired and weary president.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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