by David A. Rosenberg
Let’s talk about farce. No, we don’t mean the current Congress. We’re talking theatrical farce here, that lowdown, door-slamming, exaggerated piece of ridicule.
Of course, this being the season, we could be talking turkey since the root for “farce” is the Latin “farcire,” which also gives us “farcing,” another word for “stuffing.” By the 19th century, “stuffing” had acquired the vulgar connotations it still has. Ever on the alert for sexual meanings, hidden or not, our prudish forebears preferred filling their birds with “dressing.” Remember that bit of trivia when conversation lags around the Thanksgiving table.
But back to the theater. When is a farce not funny or a melodrama not exciting? Answer: When they’re not taken seriously. Since both forms are so inherently ridiculous to begin with, they must be treated believably by the actors.
“You have to make sure the characters believe in who they are and what they're doing,” said director Robin Armstrong, interviewed in the Dallas News by Lawson Taitte. “The actors can never wink at the audience. I tell them they have to be more real than in any drama they've ever been in."
Agrees British director John Caird. In his book “Theater Craft,” he writes, “A good farce obliges the audience to believe in both the characters and the events to the point where laughter is their only recourse."
So we couldn‘t help but have all this in mind when seeing a pair of farces: “Room Service” at Westport Country Playhouse and “The Underpants” at Long Wharf. Why was the former so dour while the latter tickled? Obvious answer: Believability.
It certainly wasn’t the script. In fact, the John Murray/Allen Boretz “Room Service” is fuller, better written than the undernourished “Underpants,” which was penned by Steve Martin. (Yes, that Steve Martin.)
Taking his plot and situations from German playwright Carl Sternheim’s 1911 “Die Hose,” Martin avoids the earlier work’s satirical bent. Although he keeps hints of anti-Semitism (one character insists his name is spelled “Kohen,” not “Cohen”), Martin eliminates much of Sternheim’s satire, opting instead for ribald humor.
The result at Long Wharf is an abbreviated (95 minutes, no intermission) evening of laughs, delicious performances, one hysterical bit involving a rubber-legged climb upstairs and loads of innuendo. Let’s call it “stuffing interruptus.”
It all begins when Louise Maske loses her underpants while watching a parade, causing Theo, her apoplectic husband, to miss seeing the king go by. Worse -- or, depending how you look at it -- better, is the thrill her contretemps gives to several onlookers, two of whom show up ostensibly to rent the room Louise and Theo have for rent.
One is a vainglorious peacock, the other a schnook, both of whom would love to have an affair with Louise. Encouraging her to agree is her upstairs neighbor, the vivacious Gertrude. Also stirring the pot is a late arrival, a prude who has zero interest in the lady.
Doors slam, misunderstandings ensue, dinner is a disaster and we get double entendre lines like “I am engulfed by the rising tide of my rumors,” groaners like “It’s barbaric.” “How dare you insult barbers!” and a few toilet jokes. It’s a classic commedia dell’arte situation: deceived husband, randy old man, lovely soubrette and pompous would-be lover.
The cast is uniformly splendid, as is Gordon Edelstein’s direction and the period set and costume designs. Is it silly? Yes, and stuffed with bawdy, giddy fun.