Los Angeles Times - February 2nd, 2004
He’s happiest on the farce side of life
Brit Ray Cooney’s sequel to ‘Run for Your Wife’ makes its West Coast premier Friday
Ray Cooney stands at the apron of a stage in Long Beach, probing his round ruddy, predominantly bald and slightly bumpy skull to make a point about his long life in the British theatre. His fingers have marched well north of the furrowed trenches of his forehead, searching for a spot near the crown. Somewhere up there, he says, is a little white scar, proof that farce is not always a laughing matter.
When it comes to inducing laughter among theatregoers, few pates have been more productive. Out of that 71-year-old dome have popped 19 plays over the last 43 years, all but two of them farces. Several had long runs in London and have been revived often elsewhere. “Move Over Mrs Markham” (written with John Chapman) and “Out of Order” are among Cooney’s frantic contraptions in which adulterers try to cover their tracks. His biggest success has been “Run for Your Wife”, the 1982 piece about a harried bigamist trying to keep his two houses of cards from collapsing into each other. It ran for more than eight years in the West End. “Caught in the Net”, the recent sequel to “Run for Your Wife”, has its West Coast premier Friday at International City Theatre in Long Beach. As is often the case, Cooney is directing the show and acting in it as well.
In “Caught in the Net”, taxi driver John Smith dispatches himself frantically between his two suburban London homes, trying to head off the meeting of two teens – his son and daughter - who have grown friendly in an internet chat room. Excited that each has a cab driver father named John Smith, these unknowing half siblings want to further their acquaintance in person. At certain points, doors will slam as rapidly as a punk rock band’s bass drum. An older man played by Cooney is among the characters whom the cabby and his ally Stanley, must keep shut up or in the dark to avert a disastrous revelation.
The doors were slamming fast and hard one night some 20 years ago as Cooney performed in a suburban shakedown run of his 1984 play, “Two Into One”. Just before the first act ended, all that banging had dislodged a large painting from the wall. It fell right on Cooney’s head.
“The audience suddenly stopped laughing, and I realized it was because there was blood pouring down my face” the urbane but unpretentious dramatist said, amused at the memory. Cooney says he dismissed a doctor’s insistence that he proceed to the emergency room, had the wound tended backstage and performed the rest of the play. “Before we got to London, I made sure all the pictures were secured.”
All sorts of mishaps were predicted for Cooney when, at 14, he quit school to play the young Edvard Grieg in “Song of Norway”, a musical about the composer.
“My parents were working class,” he says, “and they’d scrimped and saved to send me to this good school.”
But apart from a hitch in the British army as a conscript during his late teens, he has made a life in the theatre in which he nearly has done it all: acting, writing, directing, producing plays and running a theatre of his own, He is heir to a vulnerable British tradition of farce, having learned to love the genre as a youngster acting in plays from the 1920’s and 1930’s by Ben Travers. He made his name on the London stage in the 1950’s with the Whitehall Theatre Company, led by another leading name in farce, actor-director Brian Rix.
Cooney says he started to write out of boredom while playing a secondary role in one of Rix’s hits, “Simple Spymen”.
“I was in this play for four years, and after about a year I started thinking, ‘All I’m doing is playing tennis and chasing actresses and having a good time. I think I maybe should be doing something a bit more useful.’ So I started to scribble.”
The result was “One for the Pot”, written with fellow actor Tony Hilton and fostered by Rix. Its success spawned a playwriting career, at first usually with co-writers but primarily on his own since the early 1970’s. After establishing himself as a writer-actor, Cooney says, he took on the roles of director and producer because “I’m the kind of guy who finds it very difficult to say no.” That, he says, is what landed him in Long Beach. Shashin Deai, artistic director of International Theatre, has been a fan of Cooney’s plays since the late 1960’s and staged two of them, “Out of Order” and “Funny Money!” at ITC during the 1990’s.
When Cooney, who spends a good deal of time in Los Angeles, attended ITC’s 2000 production of “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn, the two struck up a friendship. From then on, Desai was after Cooney to act and direct at ITC.
The clincher, Desai says, was his eagerness to have Cooney stage a new play instead of a revival.
For Cooney, the acting and directing turn coincides with one of his regular visits with his screenwriter son, Michael, who lives in L.A. Together they have written a farce, “Tom, Dick & Harry”, that has had a suburban tryout in England and is headed for a London production late this year or early in 2005. Cooney and Linda, his wife of 40 years, also spend a lot of time in Australia with their other son, Danny, and their two grandchildren.
Cooney says it occurred to him seven years ago that there could be another play in the pretzel-shaped life of his bigamist cabby, especially if he introduced nearly grown kids into the mix. He resisted the idea, thinking that a sequel “isn’t the kind of thing you do in the theatre. They do it in movies, don’t they?” But the belief that it could be hilarious prompted him eventually to write “Caught in the Net”, and open it in London in 2001.
Most of the British critics like it: even a slightly grudging Benedict Nightingale of the Times of London, who wrote, “The piece has more in common with ‘Nothing On’, the farce Michael Frayn parodies in his classic ‘Noises Off,’ than with ‘Noises Off’ itself. But it had me cackling and chortling in the stalls for roughly two hours.”
Cooney concedes that he divides critics: those who appreciate his plays because they think farce fulfils its mission by generating laughter and those who want depth, dimension or social satire. The group that wants brain food tends to disparage Cooney with comparisons to fellow Brits Frayn, Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn – as the New York Times’ Mel Gussow did in his dismissive review that sank “Run for Your Wife”, on Broadway in 1989. In contrast to more ambitious comic writing, Gussow wrote, “‘Run for Your Wife’ aspires to mediocrity and achieves it.”
Cooney keeps his equanimity in the face of brickbats. No, he says readily, he never aspired to do more than entertain. “Have I ever wanted to be more serious? I love the quality that Alan (Ayckbourn) has, that he can make you laugh and cry in the same play. I’ve never felt the urge to go any deeper. I just leave that to other people who do it really well. I feel so grateful I’ve had this particular facet to my talent, and maybe I should stick to it.”