Slapstick with the Office Staff: Scramble! at the Westport Country Playhouse

David Begelman

David Wiltse, author of the peppy two-act, Scramble!, has a lot going for him. He is a virtuoso playwright of the snappy comeback, the mordant quip, the riotous one-liner, the hilarious riposte, the well-timed gag. What he isn’t is a playwright who in this case delivers memorable drama. But so what? Audiences who come away from this comedy shouldn’t have their hopes pitched so high that Scramble! at the Westport Country Playhouse is bound to disappoint expectations for something loftier.

Scramble! is simply a hugely entertaining play about office politics that director Tracy Brigden moves along at such furious and accelerating pace, you have to catch your breath from one waggish moment to the next.

The play is in the honored tradition of farce, not to mention a lineage of comedy that goes back to Plautus, Commedia, Feydeau, and—oh yes, to a playwright of some promise who couldn’t resist installing Mr. Wiltse’s species of humor even in his most serious works: Shakespeare.

The office gang in Scramble! are all played by a talented cast with an accomplished set of techniques. Characters are all over each other trying to save their jobs from being downsized, arranging late night encounters with each other that turn out to be a comedy of errors, and playing one-upsmanship as though there were no end in sight.

Of course, saying that Mr. Wiltse’s brand of comedy has an older provenance is hardly a basis for showering accolades on Scramble!; one has to judge the play on its own merits.

Even so, this comedy, with its bouncy musical score, doesn’t come off badly at all. Audience members who may have emerged from the theater grumbling that it wasn’t a Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Odd Couple, or The Cherry Orchard, probably had to muffle their sniggers lest anyone discover they were actually having a good time of it—or on occasion rolling in the aisles, as the case may be.

The six characters in Scramble! come together in two small offices of a golf magazine. There is discernable tension in the air, either because some of them doubt their writing abilities, like Carter (played frenetically by Matthew Rauch) who frets, “What other magazine would hire a writer who can’t write?”, or speak in an unintelligible babble when put on the spot, like Jane (played with spastic élan by Rebecca Harris who, as office klutz, manages to get her foot stuck in a basket and bump into walls without her glasses).

Carter has taken a shine to the comely Temple (played deliciously by Jennifer Mudge), an office worker who hankers for becoming managing editor. She also uses her feminine wiles to flirt with, only to rebuff Carter, as well as lord over Jane in a continually lopsided relationship. Allergic to flowers, Temple is always on the verge of a sneezing jag when bouquets are brought into the office.

Otis, the son of the founder of the magazine (played with a hilarious flair for one-liners by Colin McPhillamy) is a Brit who takes a shine to the office staff, and has a penchant for forgetting a crucial word in any remark he consistently fails to complete.

All three office workers cower before Sam, the managing director (played with a hard-nosed and bullying mien by Candy Buckley), who keeps everyone on their toes. At one point in the first act, she indicates that a message about downsizing has come from above, and weeding out the unfit will have to be the order of the day in the near future. If the staff was not a batch of nervous Nellies before, Sam’s alarming message raises their anxiety to a new level.

Into this mélange of jittery folks, steps Johnson (played with unassuming perfection by Tom Beckett), the quintessential nerd down to the way he dresses, parts his hair, or stammers his words. He also has a habit of taking notes he records in a carefully guarded memo book. Others interpret this as his being the ax man who is getting the goods on all for the bosses upstairs.

Then the action takes off, especially in the second act, when characters go in and out of doors to a storeroom, noisily upsetting golfing supplies, or move on and off stage in a well timed sequence of entrances and exits choreographed by Mark Olsen. They also arrange to meet in secret rendezvouses at 9:00 PM in which the unexpected person invariably turns up just to illustrate how often things go wrong with best laid plans. It is all delirious confusion, and about as slapstick as director Tracy Brigden can get. Then again, you’ve got to have a deft handle on the action to organize confusion as skillfully as this director.

Johnson, of course, turns out not to be the real ax man. When the latter’s true identity is revealed, everyone is enormously relieved to discover that the corporate executioner has taken such a shine to the office staff, no one will be cashiered, and the entire group exits singing “The Continental.” Silly, to be sure. But, what the hell, does it have to be anything other than silly for you to have some fun and a gaggle of belly laughs?

Scramble! Opened at the Westport Country Playhouse on July 9, and perfomances continue to July 26, 2008. Performances on Tuesday are at 8 PM, Wednesday at 2 and 8 PM, Thursday and Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 4 and 8 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM. Reservations may be made by calling the box office at 203.227.4177, or online at www.westportplayhouse.org.

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