Fast, Furious Farce

Caught in the Net snares big laughs, thanks in large part to a fantastic cast

This is a busy time of the year, so let's get to the point of this review fast. If you want to see a classic example of sitcom at its silliest, get over to Ray Cooney's Caught in the Net at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. No, that's not a sneer; it's a cheer. This fast-paced farce features the hilarious clowning of a stellar cast led by Paxton Whitehead, Harry Groener, and Tony Randall, perhaps the finest selection of well-aged hams this side of Smithfield, Virginia.

Let me explain. The term sitcom usually is misunderstood nowadays to mean a half-hour television show wherein characters sit around in spacious, aesthetically challenged living rooms and trade lame one-liners between far more entertaining commercial breaks. But true situation comedy entails a basic comedic problem that is cleverly manipulated by complications, surprises, and reversals to produce truly funny results. The most extreme form of situation comedy is farce, a form that stretches back to the ancient Greek and Romans. Farce traditionally involves certain standard elements: liars with secrets, sexual peccadilloes, disastrous misunderstandings, and mistaken identities. The chief pleasure comes from watching the complications spin out of control as characters seek to get away with their indiscretions only to face ever-mounting calamities.

Cooney, a successful British playwright, has been perfecting his farcical skills for more than two decades, cranking out a series of extremely popular West End comedies. His oeuvre, if one may call it that, includes long-running trifles such as Not Now Darling, Move Over Mrs. Markham, Wife Begins at Forty, and Run for Your Wife, which came to the playhouse in 1989 and happens to be the prequel to Caught in the Net.

A familiar pose for Tony Randall in this show
A familiar pose for Tony Randall in this show

Details

Through December 23. Call 305-442-4000.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami

Run for Your Wife concerns one John Leonard Smith, a London cabbie who is a secret bigamist. Aided by his lodger, Stanley Gardner, John strives desperately to keep his wives from finding out his duplicity. The situation is reprised in Net with some contemporary twists. Now 18 years into his marriages, John discovers that his daughter Vicki (by wife Mary) is in contact with his son Gavin (by wife Barbara) over the Internet and that the two plan to meet in an hour or two. Fearing discovery and the possibility of an incestuous romance, John dragoons Stanley to help him once again, sending the pair reeling through a series of increasingly complicated lies and deceptions. It all ends well, as most farces do, but not without several surprises along the way.

Despite its breezy, lowbrow feel, Caught in the Net actually is a carefully constructed, traditional farce that is a direct descendant of Molière, Plautus, and Aristophanes. Like them, Cooney takes delight in the crazy unpredictability of life, as all rationality goes amok in the face of unanticipated emotions and events. It is this fundamental observation about human experience that explains why, despite its many artificialities, farce has endured for thousands of years.

Virtually alone among modern playwrights, Cooney has clung to this ancient tradition and found vast, appreciative audiences for his crazed comedies. His situations are only barely plausible; Cooney makes a point of taking his stories from there into the land of the completely absurd. In Cooney's world, kitchen and bedroom doors can be locked from outside, and characters who are locked behind them can reenter through the front door with only the barest of excuses. Ridiculous disguises? Incredibly embarrassing positions? They're all here, and all in the name of fun. Like his British peers, The Goon Show gang and the Pythons, Cooney zeroes in on the lunacy just below the surface of bourgeois propriety.

It's all the more distressing, then, to consider Cooney's wasted potential. The great farceurs, including the modern master stylist Joe Orton, have mined the subversive nature of farce, which tends to lay waste to pretense and hypocrisy and all manner of sacred cows. Sadly, Cooney's style of farce isn't socially challenging; it's reassuring, anesthetizing. His few topical references -- to technophobia, health food, the British national health system -- are so bland and good-natured that they lack much point or bite; his sexual jokes are similarly routine. Though his plays offer a perfect platform to comment on human foibles, Cooney seems to shy away from any controversy at all. This reduces his works to theatrical gymnastics, exercises in performance and timing.

Cooney, who directed this production, plays to these assets by staging the show in two locations simultaneously: in the home of John and Mary and that of John and Barbara. Douglas Heap, Cooney's West End set designer, comes through again here with a clever hodgepodge of two sets commingled, as characters in one setting share the stage, the same doors, and the same furniture, with those from the other. It's a clever coup de théâtre that adds a welcome departure from the one-set norm and creates a kind of comedic vertigo. When Barbara makes a call on a yellow phone from her house, Stanley answers on a blue one, desperately improvising a string of ridiculous lies, standing right next to her. While a door may be locked in one house, suddenly we're in the other house, where it is not locked. I won't give away too much, but you can be assured that every bit of furniture in sight has its comedic uses.

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