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Fast, Furious Farce

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.

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.

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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Ronald Mangravite

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