Why Isn’t It Funny?

David Wiltse has written a number of plays in many styles; I particularly enjoyed Doubles, which was about Tennis, and was very amusing, and A Marriage Minuet, which dealt with adultery and writers, and was very clever. His newest play, Scramble! is a farce. The Columbia Encylopedia defines farce as a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect. It does not mention that timing is everything in farce; and there must be plenty of doors.

Candy Buckley and Tom Beckett
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Wiltse has placed this latest work in the offices of a golf magazine. There, three writers, a sexy blond named Temple, played by the sexy blond, Jennifer Mudge, who bears some resemblance to Terri Garr, Carter, a young man who is crazy about Temple, and admits he cannot write, played by Matthew Rauch, and Jane, who cannot speak coherently when in the presence of men, played convincingly by Rebecca Harris, are frantically trying to put out a magazine. They are frightened of their managing editor, a woman named Sam, acted authoritatively by Candy Buckley. This tough-talking editor tells them that a corporation is planning to buy the magazine, and they’ve sent a “hatchetman” to eliminate those who are not working out. Colin McPhillamy is an older, gentleman, Otis, the son of the owner, who sports an English accent, and whose memory is failing. McPhillamy is initially annoying-but becomes endearing as the plot thickens.

Into this setting, two adjoining offices, one in bright teal, one in bright yellow, designed by Jeff Cowie and lit by Ben Stanton, arrives a mysterious visitor, Johnson; portrayed by Tom Beckett, an actor who has played many parts at this playhouse, Johnson is dressed formally in a suit and tie. We know he is up to something, for he keeps writing in a little red notebook that hangs on a string tucked into his shirt. This poor naïf complains that he has no one and is looking for a family. No one pays attention to him until they think he is the “hatchetman.” Then, to his delight, they ply him with all kinds of friendship and love.

The playwright has employed some nice touches: Johnson stutters and turns to singing when he can’t stop; by the way this is true, stutterers do not stutter when they sing. A closet filled with golf paraphernalia is also a tunnel between the two offices; when entered, a loud crash, benefit of Sound Designer Eric Shim, emanates from it. Ilona Somogyi’s Costumes are fine, and Tracy Brigden’s direction, which, in the second act, brings all characters rushing through doors and in and out of the closet, is what it should be. But here’s the rub. None of it seemed very funny. There is very little subtext. Otis seems to have more depth than the rest. But the one and half hours with one intermission seemed ultimately empty. However, the denoument had a nice twist: Johnson was not a “hatchetman,” he was taking notes to write a play. Somehow, if Scramble! started there, it could have been a hit!

Scramble! will play through July 26 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio.

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