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Habeas Corpus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Habeas Corpus is, in the words of its author Alan Bennett, "a farce without doors." Unfortunately, the new production by the Perkasie Theatre Company is also mostly a farce without laughs.

As with most farces, the story of Habeas Corpus deals primarily with the sexual exploits of a small group of people, in this case the Wicksteed family. Arthur (Neal Arluck), the father and a doctor, takes an interest in one of his patients, Felicity (Kim Reiss). She takes an interest in Arthur's son, Dennis (Brad Makarowski), who believes he is dying. Arthur's wife (Mary Aufman) becomes enamored of Sir Percy Shorter (Robert Meksin), head of the British Medical Association, and is mistaken for Dennis's aunt Constance (played by Carrie Brewer) by a representative of a breast-enlargement company.

Yes, there is plenty of comic potential, but most of it is squandered. Director Steven Keim's staging of the show is overly weary; there is almost no sense of excitement anywhere to be found. The opening scenes of the play, which should set the tone for the remainder of the production, are especially slow paced. Once the play has found its stride, its pace is not much different. Most of the cast's entrances and exits are sluggishly timed, so while everyone always gets on and off the stage at the right time, there is little energy or tension generated, something crucial for farce.

More significantly, the relationships between the characters are never truly established. Too often, the characters just seem like a random collection of people walking through the paces of rather predictable British sex exploits. There's little sense of family among the Wicksteed clan, which sinks the more dramatic scenes near the end. It's never significantly demonstrated why we should care about the characters or their problems, so that makes them less relevant to us, and much less funny.

The fault lies not only with Keim's direction, but with the actors as well. Arluck begins grating almost immediately; it may be forgivable that he doesn't give a credible portrayal of a doctor, but his handling of nearly every line - especially a number of poetic segments that occur throughout the show - is frequently painful to sit through, and almost never funny. Makarowski is little better, and seems to be sleepwalking through his role, seldom registering anything but apathy even in situations (especially near the end) where more is required. Aufman and Brewer have more opportunities for humor, but seldom follow through; while they never annoy, they also never truly entertain.

The most entertaining characters in the show are those outside the Wicksteed family. The funniest and most watchable is Brian Linden as Canon Throbbing, the lecherous religious man who takes a liking to Constance. David Godbey as Mr. Purdue, Arthur's suicidal patient, is fairly amusing in his few moments on the stage. Brewer has her moments as Constance, but they are relatively few and far between. When you can understand Anne F. Kavanagh as Mrs. Swabb, the show's narrator, she has a few solid comic moments.

In a play such as this one, however, a few comic moments are not enough. The script is not particularly strong, so a dynamic comic staging and well-honed performances are necessary. Neither are present here. Without them, any farce - even one without doors - runs the risk of falling flat on its face.

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Perkasie Theatre Company
Habeas Corpus
by Alan Bennett
Sanford Meisner Theatre
154 11th Avenue at 22nd Street
Tickets: (212) 924-8699