"Was He Anyone?" is a farce by British playwright N. F. Simpson, who is clearly willing to go to any and all lengths to make a satirical point. In this 1972 work, that means two blithely blithering acts, when one alone would do quite nicely. There's really nothing about this screwball satire of the do-gooder instinct and the immense bureaucracies it fosters that wouldn't be enhanced by cutting it back 50 percent.
The same holds true for the ambitious, if somewhat chaotic, production by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It has been directed by John Jacobsen, who wants to match Simpson daffiness for daffiness. But what is snappy and inventive some of the time is, frankly, a bit tiresome all of the time. The evening ends up resembling a mad piece of knitting that keeps getting longer and longer, because no one quite knows the finishing stitches.
A couple of decades ago, when the Theater of the Absurd was a virtual religion, Simpson was considered one of the zanier metaphysicians in the temple--a man with the ability to squeeze logic until it cried uncle and the imagination to envision "The One-Way Pendulum," which was the title of his most celebrated work. By the light of "Was He Anyone?," however, he seems merely a social satirist with an acute sense of the sillies.
Just before the start of the play, Albert Whitbrace, a bookmaker's runner, has walked off the end of a cargo boat and plunged into the Mediterranean. For the duration of the play--or approximately 27 1/2 months--he will tread water offstage, sending up increasingly waterlogged cries for help. Meanwhile, back home, his wife (Pamela Ritchard Brown) sets out to find someone to rescue him.
Since it happens to be "World National Help You Out Year Week," there is no shortage of institutions, bureaucrats, professional sympathizers and well-heeled altruists for her to turn to. Wherever she goes, she encounters mounds of official red tape and waves of patronization. But no one in church or state will lift a simple finger to pull her hubby from the water. When rescue comes too quickly, goes one of the many official rationalizations, "it gives sanction to the act of falling overboard." In this discombobulated society, it is far easier to get a piano shipped out to sea and lowered into the water beside the drowning man, who mustn't be culturally deprived, after all, however damp his circumstances.
Although "Was He Anyone?" spins lots of nutty variations on this basic theme, it's still a single-insight play: Charitable institutions are concerned primarily with perpetuating themselves, and hang the drowning, as Simpson himself might put it. I suspect Jacobsen and his cast are aware of this shortcoming. As a result, they have undertaken diversions and delights of their own. Two musicians, housed in a gazebo off to one side, play intentionally inept interludes between scenes--the birdlike peeps on the recorder and the blasts of hot air from the brass underline a world in cheerful dislocation. The actors, who double and triple as various embodiments of the Good Samaritan, are certainly trying--with tug-on wigs, paste-on mustaches, quick-change costumes and a virtual boxcar of comic business--to keep the surprises coming. At least for some of the time, the trying pays off.
As the dazed wife dragging her heels and her packages from office to office, Brown is a downcast delight--Mother Courage in support hose. The others tend to be on-again, off-again, depending on the role of the particular moment, but T. J. Edwards, who suggests a severely demented Woody Allen, and Kirsten Vance, who has a corner on blond bimbos, are better more often than they're not.
The various scenes--at home and at sea--are set against a bright picture-puzzle Union Jack, but some of the pieces, you'll note, are in the wrong places. That's right in keeping with Simpson's view of things. In "Was He Anyone?" society has managed to turn the most elementary priorities upside down and inside out. Consider: A man has wandered off into the desert. What do Simpson's humanitarians think to do for the lost soul? Why, lickety-split, they fly him out a map.
WAS HE ANYONE? By N. F. Simpson. Directed by John Jacobsen; set, John Jacobsen and Steve Siegel; musical director, Robert Martin; costumes, Patricia Raabe. With Craig Miller, Jerry Clarke, Deborah Seidel; Pamela Ritchard Brown; Kirsten Vance; Robin Phillips; T. J. Edwards; Richard Bertone; Ritchie Porter, Robert Martin. At The Church of the Epiphany through Feb. 5.