By Geary Danihy
There’s nothing sadder than a farce that isn’t very funny, and that, unfortunately, describes Scramble!, a new play by David Wiltse that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse.
As directed by Tracy Brigden, the play is an uneven hybrid, part screwball comedy, part Benny Hill Show wannabe, that succeeds on neither level. There’s a lot of running around and door slamming, double entendres fly through the air, and sexual silliness suffuses most scenes, but the laughter all of this engenders is often strained and many of the scenes meant to be antic are merely frenzied froth.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
The basic premise is that a golf magazine’s underachieving editorial staff is thrown into a tizzy when rumors fly that the publication may be bought by a large corporation and that an “axe man” has been sent ahead to select those whose heads will be placed on the chopping block. There’s a lot of potential here to comment humorously on corporate culture and the nature of the twenty-first century workplace, but Wiltsie merely toys with this, opting rather to take a Marx Brothers approach to the situation.
Farce has never been known for its depth of character, but the characters Wiltse has created are so one-dimensional one wonders if they would vanish if they turned sideways. Perhaps that’s why Brigden has blocked many of the scenes so that the actors are facing the audience rather than each other as they pronounce their lines…yes, pronounce. That’s about the best way to describe what passes for dialogue interchange.
This stilted style of line delivery is established right from the start when Temple (Jennifer Mudge) takes Jane (Rebecca Harris) to task for her shyness around men and continues throughout, making many scenes seem like Acting 101 elocution classes.
There are, of course, some moments of genuine humor, though they are few and far between. Colin McPhillamy as Otis does a nice job as the memory-challenged son of the magazine’s founder, though his forgetfulness is a running gag that runs on for a bit too long, and Harris’s Jane is often quite funny, especially in scenes late in act two when, bereft of her glasses and foot caught in a waste basket, she stumbles around the office in total confusion.
Most of the time, however, we have actors who apparently have been told they are playing certain “types” – the unassuming milquetoast; the randy writer; the man-eating dominatrix; the blonde bombshell – and that they dare not stray from these “types” under pain of death. Thus, Tom Beckett’s Johnson (the new man on the staff) is so unbelievably unassuming he makes Don Knotts seem like a tiger; Matthew Rauch’s Carter seems to be in a continuous pre-coital frenzy; Candy Buckley’s Sam – basically a reprise of her work in last years The Little Dog Laughed at Hartford TheaterWorks – snaps out her lines as if she is rabid (it should be noted, however, that the actress sure does know how to make an entrance); and Mudge’s Temple struts, poses and projects her natural assets every chance she gets. The sum effect is like watching a cartoon, a feeling enhanced by the color scheme chosen by scenic designer Jeff Cowie for the two offices.
There’s a lot of energy expended up there on the Playhouse’s stage during Scramble!; perhaps a bit too much. The show starts off over-the-top, with the actors often straining to be “funny,” and stays there throughout. The overall effect is, unfortunately, tiresome.
Scramble! runs through Saturday, July 26. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.
This review originally ran in the Norwalk Citizen-News. To learn what other critics think of this production, go to www.ctcritics.org.