Nobody writes farce better than the UK’s Ray Cooney, whose plays are a staple of regional and community theaters across the U.S. His most recent comedy, Tom, Dick and Harry (written with son Ray Cooney) is getting its West Coast Premiere at International City Theatre in Long Beach, and thanks to Cooney’s brand of nonstop mayhem, crackerjack direction by Todd Neilsen and a sensational cast, this is a chance to see Cooney farce at its best.
Wikipedia defines farce as comedy “which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humor of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases. Farce is also characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.”
Let’s go down the list:
“Unlikely, extravagant and improbable situations”—Tom and Linda Kerwood (Brian Stanton and Christy Hall) are awaiting a visit from Mrs. Potter, who will decide if they are a fit couple to adopt a child, but before Potter can make her tail-end of Act 1 entrance, Tom’s two younger brothers pop by unannounced. First there’s Dick (Nicolas Levene), Tom’s charming “layabout brother and lazy bugger.” Having “borrowed” Tom’s van, Dick has returned from Calais with 400,000 contraband cigarettes and a half dozen crates of brandy which he intends to unload right then and there. Meanwhile youngest bro (and hospital employee) Harry (Jaime Tintor) has brought over a “bin bag” (i.e. trash bag) filled with bandaged cadaver parts. Why? you ask. It’s simple. He just wants to help out an older brother in need. If the remains of a dead body are found buried in Tom and Linda’s back yard, the asking price of the house they’re renting will plummet, and they’ll be able to afford a down payment on it.
“Disguise and mistaken identity”—A pair of illegal Albanian refugees (attractive head-scarved Katerina and her whiskey-loving mustachioed grandpa) were stowaways in the van, and when a police constable happens by Tom’s house, Tom explains Katerina away as his wife “Adriatica,” who doesn’t speak a word of English. Later, when Linda returns, Adriatica turns into Tom’s “first wife,” which is a big surprise to “second wife” Linda.
“Verbal humor of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play”—Here’s just one example, referring to a woman whose cat has gone missing: “(Worriedly) She’d be lost without her pussy!” (More “pussy” jokes follow.)
“A fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases”—Fortunately, the Kerwood home has many doors, allowing for the trademark slamming as characters enter and exit at a breakneck pace, just missing each other, or arriving at inopportune moments. Characters get locked in one room or the other, jump in and out of windows, and one even gets shoved inside the sofa to prevent his detection.
“Physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances”—There is an abundance of this in Tom, Dick and Harry. Stanton, as the oldest brother, gets laughs just putting on his pants. Tintor is the abovementioned “window guy,” who keeps getting pushed out the window again and again (with crash sound effects to enhance the effect). Levene has one of the funniest physical bits, as he pantomimes the Albanian refugees’ escape from Kosovo. When Stanton attempts to help Hall on with her wrap, he first gets his own arm stuck into one of the sleeves, and in his attempt to extricate himself, somehow ends up wearing the wrap himself, backwards. Then there’s the wheelbarrow alternately filled with body parts or an inebriated Albanian grandfather.
Todd Neilson, whose work as an actor was one of the joys of the 1990s Colony Theatre, proves himself a director of farce extraordinaire, deserving special credit for keeping all the performances on the same page—broad, but never broad to the point of overkill. Among the countless classic comedic bits are the three brothers jumping on the sofa in unison and playing innocent every time Linda pops into the room, drunken Grandpa Andreas’ cavorting with a whiskey bottle in one hand and a trumpet in the other, and a sudden West Side Story inspired dance by the three brothers.
The cast is uniformly outstanding. Stanton gets the most stage time (he’s scarcely off even a minute), becoming increasingly disheveled as he executes one comic bit after another, yet scarcely breaking a sweat. An inspired and winning performance! Levene is not only quite a treat for the eyes, but also a gifted comic actor whom we’ll surely be hearing much more from. (He’s also an authentic Englishman, which is sure to give him added cachet in Hollywood.) Tintor is perfection as the well-meaning but slightly dim youngest brother, and with all those jumps out the window, is quite the master of physical comedy. Hall is cute as all get out, and second to no man in the cast at slapstick humor.
Jaime Andrews has loads of fun as peasant girl Katerina, as does Lou Briggs (looking like Geppetto from Disney’s Pinocchio) as her increasingly intoxicated grandfather. Matt Foyer (so good in a number of recent dramatic roles at ICT, Theatre Banshee, and Boston Court) proves himself no slouch at farcical comedy as Constable Downs. Kerry Michaels (Ovation nominated for her role in I Capture the Castle) once again channels to perfection Miss Marple and a host of other classic British spinsters as Mrs. Potter. David Fruechting is very funny too in a last minute entrance as Russian bad guy Boris.
Matthew D. Egan has designed a lovely modern pastel-toned suburban London living room, and Carin Jacobs’ costumes are spot-on at reflecting each character’s personality. J. Kent Inasy has contributed his usual excellent lighting, and Paul Fabre’s sound design ups the comedic ante.
Playwrights Roy and Michael Cooney were in the opening night audience and gave thumbs up to the actors and the production. I concur. It’s easy to screw up a screwball farce by doing too little or too much. Todd Neilson and his acting crew have done it just right, and despite going on a tad too long, Tom, Dick and Harry is (are?) likely to delight and satisfy audiences hungry for an evening of laughs.