English Wry

The frisky production of Ray Cooney's 1990 comedy Out of Order currently on-stage at Coconut Grove Playhouse recalls a print advertisement from years ago. "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye," ran the copy under a picture of a satisfied customer chomping into a piece of bread. To paraphrase, you don't have to be English to enjoy this satirical romp in which a conservative member of Parliament attempts an extramarital tryst, with disastrous results. The Brits on-stage may call a closet a cupboard and the toilet the loo; they may substitute the phrase wee bit for the word little, and bloody for damn, but adulterous liaisons, pathological lying, and inane situations that spin out of control transcend cultural references. In this case they also produce a deliciously droll bedroom farce.

The roots of farce back to the situational comedies of Plautus and the burlesquelike satyr plays of ancient Greece. The form wended its way through the Middle Ages, an era that produced both secular and religious versions of the genre. It flourished in sixteenth-century Italy as commedia dell'arte, was refined in the fires of French wit from Moliere (1622-73) to Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), and barrelled into the Twentieth Century with American practitioners such as the Marx Brothers.

For his brand of broad-humored and improbably plotted shows, Ray Cooney owes a debt to his compatriot Ben Travers, author of a series of satirical pieces known as Aldwych farces -- named for the London theater in which the plays appeared in the Twenties and Thirties. More directly, Cooney cut his comic teeth by working with Brian Rix, an actor and theater manager responsible for staging Whitehall farces (also dubbed for a London stage) in the Fifties and Sixties and for whom Cooney wrote the first of his seventeen plays. In 1983 Cooney started his own company, the Theatre of Comedy. Although critics dismissed his work for years as frivolous and preposterous (and indeed it is, but wonderfully so), he received accolades as a serious comic playwright when Out of Order won the 1994 Olivier Prize for Best Comedy in London.

Order gives us conservative MP Richard Willey (Paxton Whitehead), who has arranged a rendezvous at the cozy Westminster Hotel with Jane Worthington (Kim Walbye), the Labor Party leader's secretary. Willey's wife (Delphi Harrington) thinks he's attending an all-night parliamentary session; Worthington's husband (Timothy Wheeler) believes she's ministering to a sick relative who doesn't have a phone. But events conspire to thwart the liaison, beginning with the discovery of a dead body in the hotel suite. The scene is set for the unfolding of every single farcical convention known to the stage, including deceptions piled on top of each other as in a house of cards, mistaken identities, double-entendres, and men in drag. Doors fly open and slam shut, phones ring off the hook, characters climb in and out of windows, cuckolded husbands and betrayed wives appear, hotel employees meddle and bribe, and the obligatory trousers drop, all impeccably choreographed by director David Warwick (who played the stiff in the London production).

While each of the actors delivers a wry performance, particularly Vince O'Brien as an opportunistic room service waiter and John Seidman as the dead man, Paxton as Willey and Reno Roop as his private secretary George Pigden are especially smashing. Sweet-natured, honest-to-the-core Pigden, who still lives at home with Mother, arrives on the scene to help his conniving, practically sociopathic boss out of the jam. The two men are hilarious foils for each other, with the actors milking the differences in the two characters to sublime effect.

With his hawk nose, leading chin, and long-limbed rubbery body, Whitehead looks every bit the predatory politician. The actor's voice alternates between a manipulative drawl and a calculated bark as he effortlessly lies or gives orders to Pigden. (As the lies compound beyond even Willey's foxy imagination, notice how Paxton screws up his face as if scouring his brain for new falsehoods.) Ultimately, no matter how much he sweats, Paxton as Willey takes great delight in the shenanigans at hand.

In contrast, Roop as Pigden -- in a portrayal that lives up to every promise of the actor's whimsical name -- nearly has a nervous breakdown on-stage as he becomes more and more embroiled in treachery and hoax. Unlike his boss's, his pudding face is kindly and pliant; his voice rises at the end of every sentence as if imploring the world for a way out of his dilemma.

Willey is a stock villain whose motivations never change, but lovable Everyman Pigden undergoes a transformation. Passing himself off as a womanizer in order to camouflage Willey's indiscretions, Pigden cavorts with numerous women. By the final curtain, the mild-mannered secretary has taken to the idea of seduction and discovers the pleasures of sex.

Warwick and his consummate cast wring the last drop of silliness out of Cooney's script, proving that formulaic comedy when flawlessly staged can provide cathartic laughs, even surprises. One final note on Cooney's intentions for the play: At a glance it's a bourgeois bedroom romp about infidelity. Barely scratch the surface, however, and the script reveals itself as a sendup of English politics. As Willey lies without a shred of remorse, so, by implication, does the British conservative government. Of course, according to commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, politics in recent decades has been a sex farce anyway.

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