For any theater buff who has ever trod the boards, the premise of Craig Houk’s new comedy Brute Farce — now debuting at Dominion Stage — is sublimely bonkers: “Four vengeful, narcissistic actors, with the assistance of a brutish stage manager and a cynical stagehand, abduct and hold captive a theater critic notorious for shutting down productions and ending careers through his malicious reviews.”
The script has a veddy British Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong vibe about it, and the kill-the-critic storyline promises silliness in extremis. Set in “a careworn, scarcely professional, Provincial Theatre in England,” the play sends up not only the venality of the theater critic in question but also the daft vanity of actors.
Houk intended Brute Farce to be played on a two-level set — below, a cramped and unkempt theater basement converted into a dressing room; above, a scenic depiction of a posh 1920s study; and in between, a trap door that drops open apropos of nothing — a comic concept befitting a theater far larger than Gunston Theater Two. But Dominion Stage has done a workaround: Set designer David Correia has placed the below-stage dressing room house right and the on-stage study house left, and together lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley and sound designer Jon Roberts have approximated the erratic trap door.
At the top of Act One, the much-unbeloved critic, Alistair McHugh (Mario Font), is chained to a chair in the basement. It will shortly be established that a cockamamie plan has been hatched to kill him during a play within the play. A disgruntled actor coincidentally named Killian (Joe Dzikiewicz) has masterminded the murder, which involves swapping Alistair into the play as a character who normally has a bag put over his head and is fake-punctured with a retractable horseman’s pick — except this time, with Alistair in the role of corpse-to-be, the horseman’s pick will be lethal. It soon becomes apparent that as accomplices go, the other three actors — the lush Quinn (Richard Fiske), the vainglorious diva Vivian (Heather Plank), and the coked-up, narcoleptic ingenue Fiona (Kat Sanchez) — are a hopelessly bumbling bunch. To Killian’s consternation, they’ve lost the plot. Killian urges them to focus on the threat that Alistair poses:
KILLIAN: He’s been relentless in his efforts to undermine and, at times, completely shut down any production that doesn’t suit his impossible standards. And he’s been particularly vicious as it relates to each of us, repeatedly castigating us in his reviews, with the concerted goal of putting an end to our stage careers.
Thus, the setup is ripe for hilarious dialog:
ALISTAIR: What can I say? I’m a theatre critic who lives for bad theatre. It’s my one weakness. I exist because there are actors out there who are profoundly self-aware, and who are grateful to hear the truth. And I persist because there are actors out there — like you lot for example — who take me too seriously when you shouldn’t.
VIVIAN: Oh, is that a fact? Do you know, there are mental institutions full to the brim with actors who have taken critics seriously?
ALISTAIR: On behalf of reviewers all over the globe, I’m honored.
VIVIAN: Your reviews are unreasonably harsh. And I’ll accept that though it is the responsibility of the theatre critic to be critical, it doesn’t mean that the critic should take pleasure in being cruel.
ALISTAIR: I don’t take pleasure in being cruel. It’s simply a by-product of years and years of exposure to dreadful scripts, second-rate productions, and vomit-inducing performances.
For those who’ve worked backstage or on-, there are inside jokes aplenty, especially prompted by the seen-it-all, stalwart-in-chaos stage manager Deirdre (Shayne Gardner) and her overwhelmed assistant Reggie (Karey L. Hart). In what has to be one of the funniest props in theater lore, Reggie has rigged an elaborate electrical cueing system involving four colored light bulbs, one for each actor, and two clear light bulbs, one for each scene. The actors all being themselves dim bulbs, the device results in complete confusion.
By far the most hilariously addled cast member is Sanchez as Fiona, who has sudden episodes of drowsiness (cue thump as her dropping head hits hard barrel). Sanchez’s comically pliant facial expressions and supple physicality steal nearly every scene.
In Act Two, the action moves “above” to the study set where a delightfully dizzying melodrama-within-the-farce unfolds, The Deceitful Accountant or, Blame It On Biaritz! Hyperdramatic Priscilla (played by Vivian played by Plank) is having an affair with her accountant and plotting to deplete her husband’s fortune; her stern and earnest husband Kenneth (played by Killian played by Dzikiewicz) is concealing in a closet his loopy mistress Dolores (played by Fiona played by Sanchez); and Hubert the errant accountant (played by Quinn played by Fiske) is unsoberly on hand for a whirlwind of physical comedy, one-liners, and sight gags — all in swanky costumes by Joan Lawrence.
Some of the funniest bits involve props and pieces of furniture that the characters refer to but aren’t there and must be hauled onstage mid-performance by the beleaguered ASM. And in due time the wacky plot from “below” about offing the acerbic critic intersects the play within the play and precipitates a sight-gag-in-triplicate so astonishing I gasped.
The show’s synopsis calls Brute Farce “a satirical commentary on the perpetually symbiotic, oftentimes dysfunctional, and occasionally turbulent relationship between actors and reviewers.” And it spares no one.
That said it must be said: the Dominion Stage production isn’t on footing as sure as is Houk’s script. At the performance I saw, there was evident uncertainty in several of the performances and uncharacteristic pacing unsteadiness in Matthew Randall’s direction, perhaps owing to the fact that, as he notes in the program, Dominion had to pull the show together in a mere two months. Nevertheless, as a “proof of concept” production of a solidly laugh-out-loud script, this promising comedy is very worth catching.
As someone who sometimes plays the part of theater reviewer myself — and as one who believes no critic is above criticism — I thoroughly enjoyed Act One, and I suspect that the even stronger Act Two positions Brute Farce to become a theater-laughs-at-itself classic alongside Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.
The program for Brute Farce is online here.
Not recommended for those under the age of 17.
Brute Farce is published by Next Stage Press.
(I saw Brute Farce in production on August 5, 2023, and this review is partially adapted from my review of a staged reading I attended on October 27, 2022. —J.S.)