Los Angeles Times - February 18th, 2004

 

British writer-director Ray Cooney fishes for humor with the tale of a bigamist's house(s) of cards.

 

The giddy guilty pleasures of old-school boulevard fare propel the West Coast premiere of "Caught in the Net," produced by International City Theater in Long Beach. Writer-director Ray Cooney's schizoid farce about a bigamist's colliding households is an uproarious example of high-grade lowbrow lunacy.
West End icon Cooney has been generating post-Feydeau folly since 1961. Long considered the heir to celebrated British farceur Ben Travers, Cooney's canon counts several staples in the populist field, such as "Move Over Mrs. Markham," co-written with John Chapman in 1971 and a dinner-theater perennial ever since.
In 1983 came "Run for Your Wife," which inaugurated Cooney's company, Theatre of Comedy. "Wife," a screwball study of one taxi driver and two spouses, ran for almost nine years in London. Though crucified on Broadway in 1989, it has become another regional favorite.
In 2001, Cooney concocted "Caught in the Net," which rejoins "Wife's" personable cabby John Smith (Richard Ashton) and his bipolar situation 18 years later. In Wimbledon, John reports to one wife, Mary (Tracy Winters); his teenage daughter, Vicki (Kristina Bartlett); and their lodger, Stanley Gardner (Greg Zerkle). This amiable loon is a longtime ally in John's tacit campaign to maintain his Chelsea home front, where the other wife, Barbara (Joanne McGee), and their son, Gavin (Phillip C. Vaden), are ensconced.
After Vicki and Gavin connect in an Internet chat room, struck by each other's identical paternal description, they make a date. The Act 1 rising action concerns John and Stanley's efforts to prevent this assignation from shattering the status quo. The net tangles further in Act 2 with the advent of Stanley's addled dad (Cooney), here for his promised seaside excursion. Further synopsis would cause hyperventilation.
Cooney's narrative presents both locales at once, traversing Douglas Heap's pro-forma set like a soft-focus "How the Other Half Loves." Indeed, "Caught" suggests Alan Ayckbourn aping Neil Simon on Red Bull. The dual domiciles correspond and interface without blurring, and the various British jokes land without being Americanized. This seems a testament to director Cooney's expert control over author Cooney's chortling invention.The daft cast members display convincing accents and endanger the doorjambs with kidney-threatening élan. Ashton's harried protagonist is hilarious, with a knack for knockabout comedy. Winters and McGee limn the rising confusion of both Mrs. Smiths to perfection. Bartlett and Vaden are fresh, funny juveniles, and Cooney's cracked coot hijacks the house. This goes double for Zerkle, whose discombobulated frenzy grows more sidesplitting with each mounting indignity.
Technical concerns are proficient and polished. Besides Heap, the design roster includes Bill Georges' lighting and sound, Vika Teplinskaya's props and Kim DeShazo's costumes.
Some critics have faulted Cooney's farcical architecture for its relative triviality. "Caught" has little of Ayckbourn's satiric edge, and none of the Olympian complexity of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off."
Still, Cooney's sure-fire Shaftesbury approach carries its own virtues. Even politically incorrect aspects like Mary's same-sex misread of Stanley's maneuvers emerge not from easy stereotyping but in service of escalating complications. In fact, "Caught in the Net" snags its belly laughs with more authenticity than many a sitcom, and therein lies its satisfying appeal.

 

By David C. Nichols , Special to The Times

 

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