Thursday, May 5, 2016

Actors Theatre Indiana romps through a farce — unusually, without a founder in the cast

"Don't you love farce?" runs a memorable rhetorical question in Stephen Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns."

There's lots to watch on the screen for characters in "Unnecessary Farce."
Desiree's bitter song points to the conditions that underlie farce: Misunderstandings, false assumptions, confused or deceptive identities, upsets, personal disasters.

None of that is any fun when you're  living it. If relatively minor, the conditions of farce may seem risible shortly after the dust has settled. If more serious, they will be permanently unsettling.

As a literary or dramatic genre, however, most people do indeed love farce. But, frankly, the whole bag may seem unnecessary —  and not just as part of the pun in the last line of Paul Slade Smith's "Unnecessary Farce."  Actors Theatre Indiana opened the show Wednesday night in the Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts.

The premise is a police sting operation, with video recording in an attempt to catch a small-town mayor believed to be an embezzler. P. Bernard Killian's set design says "farce" from the moment you enter the theater: Lots of slammable doors, given the cozy layout of two adjacent motel rooms.

In one of them, two bumbling cops are charged with observing on the monitor an incriminating conversation between the mayor and an in-on-the-sting accountant; in the next, a camera is none too obscurely set up behind a ficus plant and trained upon the bed, an indispensable piece of furniture in risque farce.

Call it a small-scale "American Hustle" (derived from the high-level Abscam) caper mashed up with "Lend Me a Tenor" scenic elements and also involving a funny disguise and a mess of hanky-panky.

Forgive me if this seems academic, but I love the concise definition of farce in an old "Glossary of Literary Terms" (M.H. Abrams, editor) I've saved from my English-major days. It applies perfectly to this show, a "comedy in which one-dimensional characters are put into ludicrous situations, while ordinary standards of probability in motivation and event are freely violated in order to evoke the maximum laughter from an audience."

Literalists might say you can't have a one-dimensional character, but everybody knows what that means: In farce, every breathless and breadthless character follows a narrow track of verbal and physical behavior, shoving off fresh insights and revealing intelligence only through desperate attempts to escape traps (some of their own construction) that have been set for them. My complaint about "Unnecessary Farce" is that the characters too quickly tumble into their respective ruts. This may be more the playwright's fault than that of the director, Darrin Murrell.

Murrell's management of his cast is astute and vigorous. Playwright Smith stamps each character indelibly from the first speech; he can't wait to get his farcical engine up and running. To Murrell's credit, he goes along with this. The show was tuned up and roaring Wednesday night.

Tons of revelation in the last few scenes indicate why the playwright was so eager to set our heads spinning at the outset. But making retrospective sense of everything can't hide an unusual degree of flimsiness in the structure, as amusing as it is to watch it in action. "Unnecessary Farce" is part Indycar, part jalopy.

Mayor Meekly walks in on one of several physical entanglements in "Unnecessary Farce."
Scot Greenwell as the better-prepared but still doltish cop was admirably the main focus of the comical and usually unavailing adjustments that farce characters have to make. His Officer Sheridan and the collaborating accountant, Karen Brown, have the hots for each other — which gets in the way of their professionalism; in farce, it's customary for professionalism to get slapped upside the head.

The accountant is eager to get beyond spread sheets and between bed sheets, but like everyone else, encounters one complication after another, which Leah Brenner played with a nicely frazzled quality. Sheridan's professionally eager sidekick, portrayed with frantic zest by Jenny Reber, is a kind of apprentice cop, a sort of sub-Barney Fife in need of remediation in the essentials of her job.

Ken Klingenmeier plays the folksy Mayor Meekly, who turns out to be wiser than anyone suspected. 
The mayor's habit of entering upon the most suggestive tangles of the other characters conveniently delays what he eventually forces to the surface. His controlling wife was etched with a convincing about-face late in the show by Vickie Cornelius Phipps.

As the mayor's security guard, Agent Frank, Scott Russell gets to play the most interesting character, one with a little more to him than the others, yet still fully cast from the farcical mold. He does so in a manner that earns our sympathy.

On the outsize side of the genre struts the menacing Todd, a hitman associated with the town's crime syndicate, a Scottish gang by inspiration and ethnicity alike. Roger Ortman's performance — burred and burly, neatly combining thuggishness and eccentricity — allowed the show to do a Highland fling all its own, aided by Donna Jacobi's idiomatic costuming.

For a while, who pays the piper calls the tune. Finally, the tune changes in a way that can't be revealed here. At length, the point of "Unnecessary Farce" is made with necessary force.