You'll Die Laughing

Actor Peter Haig embraces his role as Vincent Vincent, the pivotal character in the British farce Natural Causes, as though he were gorging on the theatrical equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner. Making his way through each savory episode, Haig samples multiple comic possibilities, devouring each morsel served up by playwright Eric Chappell, as well as a few he seems to have brought to the banquet himself. The playwright may have a flair for comedy, but from the audience's point of view Haig is the main course and the dessert.

Haig's Vincent is the representative of Exodus, a do-it-yourself euthanasia group, and he is apparently more akin to Pee-wee Herman than to Jack Kevorkian. Vincent is not Vincent's real name, of course. "We don't use our real names. Would you?" he asks when he first arrives at the suburban London home of Walter and Celia Bryce, adding that "one of our members calls himself Peaseblossom," a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Vincent has been summoned by Walter, who hopes to give wife Celia a gentle push into the beyond because (a) she's been chronically depressed for years but lacks the courage to do herself in; and (b) Celia's death would make it so much easier for Walter to marry his secretary Angie. Upon his arrival, however, Vincent assumes that the sinister potion he carries with him -- "my little herbal remedy" -- is intended for hubby Walter, whom he nearly poisons by mistake.

Natural Causes, now enjoying its Florida premiere at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, is propelled by mistaken identities and near-fatal mishaps involving characters picking up glasses of poison intended for others. But before you say, "British farce? Yuck!" let me assure you this comedy is closer to a choice episode of Frasier than to the typical Brit bedroom farce in which doors open and close to reveal half-dressed maids leaving just as the lady of the house returns. Chappell's dynamic acknowledges that greed, self-interest, and pride may make up the darker parts of human nature, but it's fun to watch others indulge in them. Like traditional bedroom farces, the play may have a sour marriage at its center -- it may also have a great number of door openings and closings -- but what it doesn't have is the low comedy for which the genre is known.

Chappell, though, isn't your average writer of farces. According to the program notes, Chappell's agent sent the script of Natural Causes to Hollywood with the comment that he thought the play would be perfect for Peter Falk. (Well, what script isn't?) More to the point, the program also notes that Chappell, a successful British sitcom writer, spent the first half of his professional life as an "auditor with the electricity board before taking up full-time writing in 1973." I'm not sure what an auditor for the British electricity board does, but I'm willing to bet it's the sort of job that allows a person to observe the irritating behavior of others who are also in drudge jobs, to record such behavior in one's memory, and then one day to refashion those observations into characters such as Vincent Vincent.

As played by Haig, Vincent is an annoying chatterbox fueled by repressed anger and who natters on about how he "left school at fourteen," as though that somehow explains his dour personality. "I can smell the old books," he says as he surveys the leather spines on Walter's library shelves. "Not a Penguin in sight." For the most part, Haig's acting choices are too intelligent to go unnoticed, yet they are never so obtrusive as to call undue attention to themselves. When Haig does interject mannerisms, the effect is terrific, as when he occasionally bares his teeth in a manner that brings to mind a crass, middle-aged Jim Carrey.

Vincent is also well-imagined by costumer Anita Kessel. His wardrobe of ill-matching browns and grays bespeaks his dreary existence in a small apartment located in a dead-end neighborhood. The acrid smell of fried rice from the Chinese take-out below his apartment seeps not only into Vincent's clothing but pervades his entire personality. His nerdiness, however, belies a searing cynicism whose first appearance is something of a surprise. When Walter claims he can't simply leave his wife rather than kill her because "I can't upset her," Vincent asks, "You mean she's got all the money?"

Because Chappell is a crackerjack writer of dialogue, a character as idiosyncratic as Vincent might be ingredient enough for a black comedy. In fact, an entire new play could probably be constructed around the hilarious interchanges between Vincent and Walter, whom Vincent hates because he thinks Walter has everything in life he doesn't. What Walter actually possesses is an easy sophistication that Vincent -- struggling to prove he's Walter's equal -- can't even see. Here's an example of what happens when Vincent tries to impress his client: Learning that Walter is a writer of historical biography, Vincent tries to recall which luminary once said, "When I hear the word 'history,' I reach for my revolver." Walter, who recognizes the mistake in the quote, corrects him: "It was 'culture.'" To which Vincent replies, "I thought it was Goering."

Indeed, Vincent is a prize -- a worthy foe for any wife-murderer -- but what's ingenious about Natural Causes is that the comedy assaults us on two fronts. In addition to the main thrust, in which Vincent tries to induce Walter to pay increasingly higher sums to have his wife bumped off, Chappell also introduces Withers, the perfect foil for Vincent. Withers belongs to the Samaritans, those benign souls who staff suicide hotlines, but he may not be entirely up to the challenge of preventing this calamity. When Walter, having been hoodwinked by his wife into a suicide pact, calls Withers's organization, he can't get the man to make a house call because his wife has the car that day.

When Withers, a fastidious church mouse of a man, finally makes his appearance, the comedy just gets richer. No sooner has Withers unpacked such creaky platitudes as the notion that animals don't commit suicide than Vincent retorts by pointing out that animals "don't have to choose between a [television] program on the Queen Mum's rose garden or the lost episodes of The Love Boat." Before long the two are taking physical as well as verbal swings at each other. The play's funniest set piece is the strange waltz the two engage in, with Vincent subduing the smaller Withers in a headlock.

Under Arland Russell's thoughtful and witty direction, Natural Causes is fresh and hilarious. (The production I saw, still in its first week, ran a little long but should be on track by now.) It plays well on Jerry Waxman's well-appointed set, which depicts Walter and Celia's comfortable living room. As the heart of the production, Haig is too wise to overshadow the other actors, all of whom are delightful if not always as fascinating as he. The women in the cast -- Jennifer Fenn as Walter's girlfriend Angie and Sunny Reale as wife Celia -- are less interesting than the men. But as Withers, Kevin Dean is very much up to the challenge; he plays Withers like a hapless rag doll. Slightly less compelling (but only slightly) is the hard-working Marc Streeter, whose Walter is a handsome man in a constant dither. Like the rest of Natural Causes, it's a charming dither indeed.

Natural Causes.
Written by Eric Chappell; directed by Arland Russell; with Peter Haig, Marc Streeter, Jennifer Fenn, Sunny Reale, and Kevin Dean. Through August 30. Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, 1938 Hollywood Blvd.; 954-929-5400.

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