You'll Die Laughing

Indeed, Vincent is a prize -- a worthy foe for any wife-murderer -- but what's ingenious about Natural Causes is that the comedy assaults us on two fronts. In addition to the main thrust, in which Vincent tries to induce Walter to pay increasingly higher sums to have his wife bumped off, Chappell also introduces Withers, the perfect foil for Vincent. Withers belongs to the Samaritans, those benign souls who staff suicide hotlines, but he may not be entirely up to the challenge of preventing this calamity. When Walter, having been hoodwinked by his wife into a suicide pact, calls Withers' organization, he can't get the man to make a house call because his wife has the car that day.

When Withers, a fastidious church-mouse of a man, finally makes his appearance, the comedy just gets richer. No sooner has Withers unpacked such creaky platitudes as the notion that animals don't commit suicide than Vincent retorts by pointing out that animals "don't have to choose between a [TV] program on the Queen Mum's rose garden or the lost episodes of The Love Boat." Before long the two are taking physical as well as verbal swings at each other. The play's funniest set piece is the strange waltz the two engage in, with Vincent subduing the smaller Withers in a headlock.

Under Arland Russell's thoughtful and witty direction, Natural Causes is fresh and hilarious. (The production I saw, still in its first week, ran a little long but should be on track by now.) It plays well on Jerry Waxman's well-appointed set, which depicts Walter and Celia's comfortable living room. As the heart of the production, Haig is too wise to overshadow the other actors, all of whom are delightful if not always as fascinating as he. The women in the cast -- Jennifer Fenn as Walter's girlfriend, Angie, and Sunny Reale as wife Celia -- are less interesting than the men. But as Withers, Kevin Dean is very much up to the challenge; he plays Withers like a hapless rag doll. Slightly (but only slightly) less compelling is the hard-working Marc Streeter, whose Walter is a handsome man in a constant dither. Like the rest of Natural Causes, it's a charming dither indeed.

Natural Causes.
Written by Eric Chappell. Directed by Arland Russell. Starring Peter Haig, Marc Streeter, Jennifer Fenn, Sunny Reale, and Kevin Dean. Through August 30. Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, 1938 Hollywood Blvd., 954-929-5400.

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