Enjoyable nonsense in ‘Unnecessary Farce’ at Vienna Theatre Company

The comedy is sprinkled with amusing lines and entertaining bits, and the actors' characterizations are as exaggerated as advertised.

In his director’s note for Paul Slade Smith’s Unnecessary Farce, Eddie Page cites a definition of “farce” as including buffoonery, horseplay, crude characterizations, and ludicrously improbable situations. Vienna Theatre Company’s production fully meets the definition.

The setup: Two incompetent cops, Eric Sheridan and Billie Dwyer (Bruce Alan Rauscher and Kate Bierly), in cahoots with Karen Brown, a sexually overheated accountant (Liz Owerbach), set up a sting operation to get the seeming simpleton of a local mayor (Steve Rosenthal) to admit to financial finagling. Into the mix come Agent Frank, a town security officer with mixed motives (Dave Wright), Scottish organized crime hit man Todd (Bob Cohen), and the mayor’s wife, Mary Meekly (Janice Zucker), like her husband a seeming simpleton.

Liz Owerbach and Dave Wright, as the accountant Karen Brown and Agent Frank, discovered in a compromising position by Officer Eric Sheridan, portrayed by Bruce Alan Rauscher. in ‘Unnecessary Farce.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

The sting is to take place in two identical, interconnected motel rooms, providing eight doors for the multitude of entrances, hiding places, and missed connections essential to the genre. Designed by John Downing and decorated by Charles Dragonette, the set works. The doors are solid and make satisfying noises when slammed. The bedspreads are colorful, adding visual interest to the drab motel setting.

The show is sprinkled with amusing lines and entertaining bits. Before killing someone, Todd must change into a kilt and play a bagpipe tune. When he gets angry, as he frequently does, he speaks in an incomprehensible accent, which Cohen mangles magnificently. Only Billie can translate his speech into English, which at one point Bierly does at a presto tempo, earning a deserved round of applause. Subsequently, Eric winds up in Todd’s Scottish garb, attempting an intentionally unsuccessful rendition of Todd’s accent. Throughout most of the play, Mayor Meekly wanders in and out of the rooms, with Rosenthal doing obliviousness well.

In fortunate contrast to plays of the Ray Cooney sort (e.g., Run for Your Wife, Caught in the Net), notorious sex farces with minimal sexual content, Slade’s script has the virtue of having two characters — Eric and Karen — who actually are hot for each other and do something about it, albeit in a closet behind one of the doors, out of sight of the audience.

Karen in fact often sheds her outer garments, down to a black slip, in the process calling attention to a weakness in the script. The same joke for the same character repeats and repeats. Similarly, Todd repeatedly gets bonked in the head by one door or another, being knocked unconscious to the point where one wishes that the world of Unnecessary Farce had a concussion protocol. What’s funny once, or even twice, loses humorous force when done too frequently.

Liz Owerbach and Dave Wright as Karen Brown and Agent Frank in hotel room next door to Bruce Alan Rauscher and Kate Bierly in a stake out as Officers Eric Sheridan and Billie Dwyer in ‘Unnecessary Farce.’ Photo by Matthew Randall.

The characterizations are as exaggerated as advertised, the situations are improbable even by farce standards, and the physical horseplay often involves actors throwing themselves onto beds, each other, or the floor. Farce and other kinds of broad comedy work best when characters don’t know that they’re being funny and doing ridiculous things. Rather, they go about their business in all seriousness, as ludicrous things happen to and around them (think Buster Keaton silent movies or a top-of-the-line farce like Noises Off). Slade’s script works against this approach, resulting in actors sometimes appearing to work hard at being funny.

That said, the actors are able to make something of their characters. Rauscher does nicely as an unconfident, tongue-tied-around-women fellow who eventually finds a degree of manly courage. His measured pace and changes in volume and pitch contrast well with the production’s overall loud and fast sound. Rosenthal and Zucker capably handle their characters’ reveals as being quite different from what they first seem. Bierly has one of the nicest physical comedy bits of the evening, when, bound hand and foot by Todd, Billie scuffles about the stage and sinks into a corner behind a door.

Adam Parker’s sound design includes pre-show music featuring a comic jazz version of “Three Blind Mice,” effectively setting the tone for the proceedings. Then the show begins with the Dragnet theme, puzzling for a story set in today’s world rather than that of the 1950s. Phone rings on the old-fashioned motel handsets (why is Todd the only character with a cell phone?) are well-timed. Michelle Harris’ costume design often focuses amusingly on underwear, not only for Karen but for three of the men as well.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Unnecessary Farce provides an enjoyable dose of nonsense for the audience.

Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission.

Unnecessary Farce plays through May 7, 2023, presented by Vienna Theatre Company performing at Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St SE, Vienna, VA. Tickets, priced at $15, are available online or in person at the venue.

The May 7 performance will have sign language interpretation available.

COVID Safety: Wearing of masks is optional.


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