Fast, Furious Farce

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

The cast is a marvel to watch as it slaloms through this physically demanding production. Harry Groener makes for a likable, frenetic John, so intent on keeping his secret that his fabrications spin out of control. Groener is a natural physical clown, forever flopping on the floor or banging into walls, and he puts his all into the role. He's paired with the superb Paxton Whitehead as Stanley, who, though well-known for his classical work (he's the former artistic director of Canada's Shaw Festival), is equally adept at low clowning. He's a master of those long neglected comedic skills -- the take, the double take, the slow burn, the lie circumstantial, and the lie direct. Whitehead's clarity, timing, and comedic invention are marvelous; local acting students and pros alike would do well to study his performance.

This splendid duo is complemented by an all-too-brief second-act appearance by the redoubtable Tony Randall as Stanley's dad, a classic Pantaloon, which was a traditional role type even back in Plautus's day. Randall doesn't say much in this show, but he doesn't have to. He scores laughs on almost every line he has, most of which are mere non sequiturs rather than punch lines. He, like Groener, is remarkably adept at physical comedy, with several knockabout gags that must have been ancient in the days of vaudeville. That serious talents like Randall, Whitehead, and Groener opted to join such foolery as this show elevates them all in my book. Comedy is hard, says the old adage, but these guys make it look easy. All three stars are ably backed by a foursome of fine performers, including Groener's real-life wife, Dawn Didawick, as a fiery Mary; the lovely Ann Sidney as Barbara; newcomer Justin Schultz as an hilariously annoying Gavin; and Daisy Eagan, a Tony Award winner for The Secret Garden some years back, as his equally grating counterpart, Vicki.

Have I rhapsodized overmuch? Then let me add a dash of salt. While this is a show you ought not to miss, take care which performance you attend, as the show's overall effect varies widely from one night to another. The first night I watched Caught in the Net, the large crowd meshed with the company's spot-on timing. But the second time (yes, I sometimes check back in), a much smaller Tuesday crowd didn't quite click with the cast, which seemed a bit off after a grueling week of shows and one day's rest. With this kind of comedy, the audience is part of the show's rhythm, and small crowds tend to be quieter and less responsive. You can't predict when the company will be off-pace or on, but you can anticipate the size of the audience. Comedy's a lot like surfing: You need those great swells and gales of laughter to build a rhythm, and it's hard to get that going with small audiences in a big theater. So if you want to catch some comedic waves, do it when the house is full. But do it soon -- alas, the show closes this weekend.

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