Watching hardworking actors gamely making their way through British playwright Ray Cooney's farcical "Run for Your Wife" brings to mind racing cartoon characters who run right over a cliff, their momentum carrying them along until they look down and, realizing they have nothing beneath them, promptly plummet.
It takes intense speed, energy and skill to keep British sex farces up and running, especially here, where Cooney has provided little substance on which actors can plant their feet. Too many times in the Rockville Little Theatre production, the actors seem to realize Cooney has left them up in the air, and they come crashing down to earth.
The play ran for nine years in London's West End back in the 1980s, but it limped through a paltry 47 performances on Broadway. Maybe it's just that British and American audiences have different senses of humor. Maybe it's just that the wafer-thin, uneven script is outdated, or that Cooney's bombastically broad, Benny Hill-pants-around-the-ankles approach can't be sustained for two hours. Condensed to half that, it might be consistently funnier.
John Smith (Bob Schwartz) is a London taxi driver who is happily married. To two women. With two homes. Apparently this works out well enough for him until he is bopped on the head and, in a dazed state, gives one address to the police and the other to the hospital. Soon, police officers are ringing the doorbells at each home to investigate the inconsistency. John and Stanley (Andrew S. Greenleaf), his cheerfully unemployed and flippant neighbor at household No. 1, then begin to pile on the lies, most of which are so stupid that they create the need for additional whoppers to explain them.
Director Pauline Griller-Mitchell has obviously tried to keep the eight cast members moving along at a rapid clip, but the first act often gets bogged down with Cooney's lame jokes and exposition that's too detailed for a farce. Her cast fares better in the second act, when they have the opportunity to engage in a great deal of physical humor, activity that seems to energize them even as they are increasingly forced to rely on stale jokes about gays for punch lines and sight gags.
Griller-Mitchell misuses the beautiful dual set Bob Thompson has created. It features meticulously detailed, side-by-side living rooms, one in pink and one in blue (right down to match-hued telephones) for Mary (Maya Weil), wife No. 1, and Barbara (Annette W. Kalicki), wife No. 2. Stretching across the huge F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre stage, each room has plenty of space to keep the action separate. But Griller-Mitchell has characters who are supposed to be in different houses crossing back and forth, using both rooms. It's hard to hear punch lines when everyone around you is asking, "Which house is she (or he) supposed to be in now?"
Schwartz is technically competent as the bigamist, playing it rather straight, but he conveys nothing redeeming or likable, which might make Smith's nasty lies more palatable. Greenleaf shows promise as good neighbor Stanley, but he misses some opportunities for big laughs by reacting too slowly. When you're supposed to stumble backwards over a sofa in shock at seeing someone unexpected, even a one-second delay completely undermines the moment.
Kalicki is more steadily successful as flummoxed wife Barbara, able to project the sense of a real person in the midst of a lot of one-dimensional foolery as she attempts to maintain the woman's shredding dignity. Colin Grube, as an effeminately gay neighbor at household No. 2, manages to be almost completely incomprehensible trying to sound like a queen with the king's English.
"Run For Your Wife" has its charms, but not enough to fill two hours.
Rockville Little Theatre's performance of "Run for Your Wife" concludes this weekend at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Dr. in Rockville Civic Center Park. Showtime is 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call the box office at 240-314-8690. For information, visit www.rlt-online.org.