Farce is a classic form of comedy, based on ludicrous characters, silly situations, mistaken identities, sex, slapstick, and many slamming doors. After centuries of development (refinement would be the wrong word) farce became so formulaic that the only path left for it to take was into parody, in meta-farces that are plays about farces, such as Noises Off, or farces about plays, such as The Play that Goes Wrong.
Best Medicine Rep, the professional theater in Lakeforest Mall that specializes in new comedy (as in “laughter is the best medicine”) is suitably familiar with this style–their previous show was Philosophus, a farcical treatment of an event in the life of Voltaire. But in their current show, Play Date, by the company’s Artistic Director John Morogiello, they have pulled off the neat trick of actually updating the concept of farce without making it a parody of itself.
To do this, they have retained the slamming doors, the exaggerated characters up to sexual shenanigans, the fast-paced precision timing, and the slapstick. But instead of the standard forms of mistaken identities when actors play characters who look alike, in Play Date, two actors play six different people, switching between them with lightning-fast costume changes and vastly different characterizations.
Director Melissa B. Robinson has her work cut out for her here, faced not only with the technical and timing challenges inherent in farce, but the additional complications of making two people into many. She handles it adroitly, with the help of an adept creative team: Johnna Leary, a third actor who plays the arms of offstage characters; Elizabeth Kemmerer’s simple but distinct costumes; and Stan Levin’s sound design, which allows actors who are onstage to be heard offstage as other people, among other sounds such as children destroying the place. As with the chaos onstage, these sounds need to be timed exactly, deftly done by Stage Manager Karen Dugard from her perch behind the audience. If only they could be a little louder, they would be perfect.
Fight Choreographer Bette Cassatt, in addition to staging knife-dodging and nose-punching, has the interesting job of designing fights in some cases with people who aren’t actually there. Set Designer Alison Mark meets the challenge of producing those all-important slamming doors within the constraints of a former retail space where she cannot make any permanent changes. Unable to realistically evoke a yuppie 19th-century Baltimore row house, she abandons realism altogether in favor of Crayola-colored kiddie playhouse of a set, which emphasizes the idea that it is the adults who are actually the naughty children here.
In order for two actors to play six people, the characters they embody must be utterly distinct and instantly recognizable. Morogiello’s clever script, Robinson’s crisp direction, and the actors’ clear performances make it happen.
Kira Burri adeptly embodies the three mothers: Missy, the hostess, feeling inadequate, trapped and misunderstood in her strained marriage; Carol, the divorced, baby-hungry earth mother who will go to any lengths to have a girl after five boys; and Deb, the image of maternal perfection, who hates herself more than all the other mothers who are jealous of her talents ever could. Missy is fast-talking and insecure, Carol is blithe, ditzy and Southern, and Deb ricochets between effortless excellence and knife-wielding insanity.
Evan Crump brings distinct life to the three fathers: Blaine, the host, who lusts after a political career and micro-manages his frustrated wife; Trent, the engine of the plot, a failed actor turned stay-at-home dad who has discovered that a cad with a kid is catnip to women; and Rowan, the English professor who knows far too much about literature and nothing about fatherhood. Blaine, in his Republican-red shirt, is pompous and clueless, Trent, with his hipster hat and hysterical surfer-dude accent, is selfish and clueless, and Rowan, with a posh British accent and tweedy jacket, is sad and clueless.
If these characters were just played for laughs, as they usually are in farce, this play would be fluffy and forgettable except for its quick-change gimmick. But Morogiello’s characters have psychological depth, and the actors make the most of it. Carol, whose methods for acquiring the girl-child she craves hover on the edge of exploitation, would be horrifying if she weren’t so funny. Rowan, the sad-sack intellectual who bores people to tears quoting poetry, underneath is a brave man who still hasn’t the courage, after his wife’s death, to love his daughter as she deserves. And Deb, the paragon, is so addicted to the admiring hatred of other mothers, and is so pressured by her own perfection, that she finally snaps in self-loathing and violently flings herself off her own pedestal. All of these characters provide compelling insights into how parenthood changes people.
Play Date is a new step in theatrical evolution — a serio-comic farce. It is funny, certainly, but also rich, deep and even poignant. It is definitely worth seeing.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.