British Gags Run Amok in Pratfalls
The New York Times, 31 March 2003
The whole thing is — let's face it — too silly for words. So readers should be advised that any descriptions that follow will be to some degree inadequate in capturing the full ecstatic idiocy of "The Play What I Wrote," the very British import of a comedy revue, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater.
Still, it seems safe to say that there isn't a show on Broadway at the moment that's dopier, more obvious or more inane than this evening of song, dance, willfully bad jokes and rudimentary sight gags from the English comedy team of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. Which may be, if you think about it, exactly what you're hungering for at a moment when the world is seeming like a lower tier of Dante's inferno.
I first saw "The Play What I Wrote" last year in London, where it had developed a dementedly worshipful cult, and the wisdom of bringing it to New York seemed suspect. The show, after all, is inspired by the comic stylings (to use an inappropriately grand phrase) of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who ruled British television with their music-hall flavored variety shows in the 1960's and 70's, but whose names have less recognition value in the United States than those of Queen Elizabeth's corgis.
Granted, I kept hearing from Americans who said they had seen and liked the show in London. But I took that as the usual tourist's pursuit of things authentically British, like eating spotted dick or attending a cricket match. And it didn't seem very auspicious that advance ads for the New York production blurbed, of all people, Prince Charles, saying how funny it was, which is a bit like having Hulk Hogan endorsing a hairdresser. Still, stand in the lobby of the Lyceum some night, shortly after the curtain rises on "The Play What I Wrote," which has been only slightly retailored for New York audiences, and you'll hear a kind of group choking sound, which segues into something more helplessly full-throated. That's the noise of people resisting and then giving in to a spectacle that they can't quite believe they are finding so funny.
Like much gut-level comedy, "The Play What I Wrote" — which is directed by Kenneth Branagh (yep, the Shakespearean actor) — is rooted in the unlikely poetry of ineptitude. The appeal of the production, which was written by Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley with Eddie Braben, is based on the assumed lack of talent of its participants. When at one point a giant, circus-style poster unfurls over the stage, advertising the act of Foley and McColl, the best it can offer by way of critical endorsement are phrases like "usually competent" and "I didn't mind it."
And those are descriptions of Foley and McColl doing what they do best. Consider, then, that the excuse of a plot for "The Play What I Wrote" has Mr. McColl earnestly longing to produce his new historical drama entitled (groan) "The Scarlet Pimple." Mr. Foley, on the other hand, wants to bring the team's traditional comedy act to Broadway.
So he recruits a friend, an electrician named Arthur (Toby Jones), to trick Mr. McColl into sticking with the old act. This involves Arthur's impersonating show business eminences like Daryl Hannah and Mike Nichols (who is indeed one of the show's producers), here renamed Mike Tickles, which inevitably leads to much giggly frisking.
And that, in terms of plot, is all there is to this enterprise, except that Mr. McColl's really terrible play does wind up being performed, with the help of a famous mystery guest star. At the critic's preview I attended, that was Kevin Kline (or Sir Kevin, as Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley insist on calling him), who was so good at acting badly that I forgot entirely that I was looking over the head of another (very tall) Oscar-winning star, Nicole Kidman, who was seated two rows in front of me.
The show's celebrity climax is preceded by a fast and furious succession of vaudevillian patter routines, artfully spastic soft- shoe numbers, songs punctuated by pratfalls and repeated bits of comic business so frantic they give new credence to the term "running gags." I'll cite one representative joke with the understanding that, as they say, you really had to be there.
Mr. Foley to Mr. McColl: "You want to be the next Eugene O'Flynn." Mr. McColl, correcting Mr. Foley: "Neill." So Mr. Foley obligingly kneels and repeats, "You want to be the next Eugene O'Flynn."
The setting for such, er, sophisticated exchanges is as lavish as anything a British lad with Broadway dreams could hope for. The set and costume designer Alice Power has come up with, among other things, an illuminated staircase fit for Astaire and Rogers. (The impeccably out-of-sync choreography is by Irving Davies and Heather Cornell.)
There's also a sylvan garden out of a Jessie Matthews musical for romantic trysting (for Mr. Jones, dressed up as Ms. Hannah, and Mr. McColl) and potted plants that grow instantly into skyscraping rubber palms for when the boys don Carmen Miranda headdresses. And you can't help loving that gargantuan Thurberesque dog puppet.
But all this is merely an ornate frame for the surgically realized doltishness of Mr. Foley and Mr. McColl, not to mention Mr. Jones, whose assets as a harmonica-playing human spark plug should not be underestimated. Mr. McColl, who has bulging Bette Davis eyes and an expression of high-strung hopefulness, is the official straight man. This means, as Mr. Foley tactfully tells him, that "you're pompous, you're affected, you're slightly effeminate."
Mr. McColl, in turn, describes Mr. Foley as "funny funny," which translates as, "You're bald, you're rubber-legged, you're potentially violent and you shout all the time." That's about as dead-on a description of this brand of comic as you're going to get, although "rubber-legged" doesn't begin to do justice to the balletic train wreck of a walk that Mr. Foley uses as a means of locomotion.
If such descriptions make you squirm, flinch or yawn, you might want to avoid "The Play What I Wrote." But there is a strangely lyrical magic in the production's full-frontal gag-driven humor. In the show's opening number, Mr. Foley and Mr. McColl are found lying (well, standing, actually) in bed. They are crooning a little nonsense song about dreaming that they're awake, singing "a ridiculous song about a song about a dream," which is in turn about a joke.
This ditty recalls Puck's final speech in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which he explains that all the bizarre goings-on that have happened before have indeed been "no more yielding but a dream." At a time when the world seems lost in a collective nightmare, there's much to be said for sinking into a dream in which people behave badly, even violently, but still get up grinning after they fall down.
THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE By Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben; directed by Kenneth Branagh; choreography by Irving Davies; sets and costumes by Alice Power; lighting by Tim Mitchell; sound by Simon Baker; production stage manager, Nancy Harrington; production management, Gene O'Donovan; original songs by Gary Yershon; musical arrangements by Steve Parry; executive producer, Dafydd Rogers; general management, Stuart Thompson Productions. Presented by David Pugh, Joan Cullman, Mike Nichols, Hamilton South, Charles Whitehead and Stuart Thompson. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Sean Foley (Sean), Hamish McColl (Hamish), Toby Jones (Arthur) and a Mystery Guest Star.