Angeles Press Telegram - February 17th, 2004
ICT comedy a 'Net' full of laughs
As soon as you take your seat at International City Theatre's West Coast premiere production of Ray Cooney's "Caught in the Net," you'll have an idea of the kind of night you are in for.
Designer Douglas Heap has provided a bright and cheery modern living room interior -- actually two living rooms in one -- with eight prominent doors for the play, and, sooner or later, most of them will be slamming away happily.
Farces using doors are almost as old as the organized theater. Plautus used them in Imperial Rome, Shakespeare borrowed them, Moliere loved them, Feydeau depended on them.
But the cell phone? Certainly playwright Cooney is one of the first to make the ubiquitous cell phone the center of a high-speed farce. And "Caught in the Net" is just about as fast-paced a piece of comedy as you are going to find on stage anywhere. "Laugh-a-minute" is a tired cliche and not half-accurate for this play, where neither the cast nor the audience get to stop for breath.
" Net" is its author's sequel to his huge hit play "Run for Your Wife," and takes us back into the crazy world of John Leonard Smith's marriage to Mary Smith and his marriage to Barbara Smith. John Smith, you see, is married to both women at once, as he was in "Run for Your Wife," though only he and his friend and lodger, Stanley, know it.
Now, though, he has children -- a teenage daughter, Vicki from Mary, and a teenage son, Gavin, from Barbara. The kids have met in an Internet chat room and are fascinated that both their fathers share the same name, age and occupation. Now the kids want to meet each other's families.
But if they do, John's lovely life of bigamy will end, and he will do almost anything to keep the kids apart, including enlisting poor Stanley in a series of lies that just keep getting bigger and bigger as the situation gets crazier and crazier -- and the doors get slammed, locked and pounded on with greater frequency and fury.
Richard Ashton is John, the big, likable husband in the middle of the muddle, trying to keep his eager young son from meeting his equally eager young daughter, and trying to keep both of them from seeing him simultaneously. Ashton makes John so likable, so sweet, you forgive him his transgressions and cheer for his success.
That he succeeds at all is due to the exertions of Stanley (Greg Zerkle), who goes to absolutely extraordinary lengths to help his friend. Zerkle possesses a rubber face and a sense of his own importance that makes his Stanley the real star of the show.
Mary Smith (Tracy Winters) is witness to some of Stanley's craziest antics, as he pretends to be a telephone answering service and much more just to keep John's other wife, Barbara (Joanne McGee), from talking to anyone in her husband's other family. That's where the cell phone comes in. John has long used it as his only phone, so his families won't ever meet. Now it keeps ringing a glorious tune at every wrong moment. Teenage son Gavin (Philip C. Vaden) and teenage daughter Vicki Smith (Kristina Bartlett) are continually coming and going, being locked in their rooms and shoved out the back door as the complications keep coming. These four family members are continually unaware of the chaos around them as the two men struggle to keep everyone from finding out the truth, and their artless simplicity makes the situation all the funnier.
After intermission, playwright and director Cooney takes a role as Stanley's slightly daft, slightly deaf dad (he thinks they are on vacation in a hotel in Felixstowe), showing a gift for broad comedy and the more than occasional pratfall.
Cooney has made his reputation as a farceur (the "prequel" to this play ran in London's West End for eight years), and as director he shows he knows how to get every laugh available.
" Caught in the Net" is all about timing, and from timed slammed doors to perfectly timed entrances and exits, it moves with the energy and speed of a train running downhill without brakes, crashing to a surprise ending. In the small and audience-friendly Center Theater, it fits with physical perfection, a perfect match between theater size and play size. Cooney's conceit in having the two living rooms pushed into one, with action taking place at the same moment between actors who never see those in the other living room, just adds to the fun.
" Caught in the Net" is not really about anything and doesn't have anything important to say. It takes serious subjects and resolves them with comedy. It is a light dessert of a play, fast and witty and silly, filled with characters you'll like, winning performances and enough slammed doors and surprising twists and turns to please anyone.
John Farrell is a Los Angeles freelance writer