'Scramble!' farce lacks in funny
by David A. Rosenberg
Don’t fret about missing the latest juvenilia at your local cineplex. Toilet, projectile vomiting and penis jokes are alive, though not well, at the Westport Country Playhouse where “Scramble!” is evoking yucks from some customers, groans from others. The latest work from playwright-in-residence David Wiltse purports to be a farce about intra-office romance and corporate hatchet jobs. While it follows the farce form, it has one problem: it ain’t funny.
Wiltse, who was much wittier in earlier outings like “Marriage Minuet” and “Triangles for Two,” is not well served by director Tracy Brigden. The evening starts on such a high, frantic note it has nowhere to go. Farce demands realistic characters caught in improbable situations. That tenet is violated by forcing the actors to play caricatures, not human beings.
Further, gags are repeated but not built. Every time someone walks into a storage room, we hear Fibber McGee closet-like crashes. One character clomps endlessly about with her foot in a wastebasket. Without variations, the situations founder.
Taking place in the office of a golf magazine that’s on shaky financial grounds, the play scrambles the sex drives of office workers and bosses. Sight-challenged Jane lusts for macho Carter. Carter lusts for busty Temple. Control freak female editor Sam is a secret sadist, stuttering Johnson a milquetoast and British-accented Otis a verbal buffoon. Confusion reaches its climax with a late-night tryst of mistaken identities and slamming doors, the very stuff of farce.
But Wiltse has little affection for his characters, especially women. Amid past works’ literate writing have always been whiffs of misogyny and adolescent snickering. Here he comes up with lines like, “Don’t stand there shaking like a dildo” and “There’s no satisfaction when things are premature.”
His humor relies on the hoariest physical jokes: one woman’s cleavage, another’s tongue-tied gibberish in the company of men, a third’s dressing as a dominatrix. There are gags about Jeffrey Dahmer, eunuchs, vulgar Italian arm gestures and other embarrassments.
He: “I’ll provide for you. Throw yourself on my charity.”
She: “Is that what you call it?”
Some lines are unfortunately significant, such one character’s bemoaning having to “write the same shopworn stuff.” And no author should ever, ever pen, “I’m not a writer. I can’t write. I might as well squat on the screen and get it over with.”
If you don’t cringe at such stuff, then this is for you. Taking her cue from the line, “logic doesn’t matter in comedy; speed is what counts,” Brigden’s meat cleaver direction is so hellbent that she neglects setting up characters and situations. We have no chance of immersing ourselves in what’s going on. Farces – “Charley’s Aunt,” “Volpone,” the current “Boeing-Boeing” – construct believable predicaments before tearing them down.
Under the circumstances, it’s charitable not to mention the actors who, like all actors everywhere, give it their all. For the record they’re Tom Beckett, Candy Buckley, Rebecca Harris, Colin McPhillamy, Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Rauch. Better luck next time. To us as well as to them.
This review appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, July 18, 2008