Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Unnecessary Farce
Santa Fe Playhouse
Review by Frances Madeson

Also see Mark's review of Enfrascada


Unnecessary Farce by Broadway actor Paul Slade Smith (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) is the opening gambit for what is being offered as a themed season of political plays (defined broadly) by the Santa Fe Playhouse. It is not only a farce, meant to induce laughing jags, it's a bedroom farce, which means people are always on the way to or fro copulating, or seeming to. And the misunderstandings about those pairings and ménages à trois are meant to be part of the show's giddy pleasures, as are the surprising plot twists that result in the physical maneuvers so easily mistaken for sex acts in process.

It's all in good adult fun, and—judging by the raucous laughter resounding throughout the historic theater, which has its roots in the reformist Little Theater Movement—mission accomplished. For many in the audience, once the laughter spigot turned on, it stayed on, with some audience members audibly guessing the somewhat obvious punchlines before the actors spoke them, e.g. "Big Mac" as the name of the head of the gangster Scottish clan. Relaxation and release of tension were in the air, even possibly catharsis, as director Vaughn Irving, who is also the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, had hoped. From the program's director's note:

"I have always been fascinated by the art of comedy. The opportunity to make a group of people laugh should not be passed up, especially in times of darkness and fear. Sitting in a theatre and having a collective cathartic laugh surrounded by members of your community is something invaluable to individuals and to society.

We have grown to value serious drama and think of comedy as something pedestrian and cheap, yet good comedy is much harder to create than good drama. And farce is the most technical and challenging form of comedy."

So let it be said that this production also delivers in terms of these technicalities. The set (designed by Michael Blake Oldham) is a pair of adjoining motel rooms dominated by beds with ivory coverlets, containing the requisite number of doors—two entryways from the hall, two where the rooms join, two each to the closet and bathroom—doors that open, shut, lock, hide, reveal and knock out bad guys in the nick of time.

The actors never fail to be at their required stations. Their horseplay hits its marks, the frenzied humping, struggling and heavy breathing are all delivered on cue, sometimes to hilarious effect. Perhaps most especially when the Scottish hit man known only as Todd (played by Silas Harris) delivers his threats and ultimatums in a deranged and insensible brogue that leaves his would be victims helplessly shaking their heads at his unintelligibility. His lack of communicative skill is portrayed as a major symptom of his psychopathy, and Harris who speechifies with a hardened sneer and scowling eyes terrifies in his heartlessness—a wiry badass in a kilt. Agent Frank (played by Matthew Kelly) sweats on the emotional high wire as he tries to simultaneously correct and placate him without getting offed himself. The mayor's wife Mary Meekly (played by Pat Beck) is a benign presence who rounds out the seven-member cast.

But farce, especially in the hands of brilliant and original theater artists like Carol Burnett, Oscar Wilde, or the Marx Brothers, for instance, also has a time-honored tradition of puncturing the pretensions of the ruling class and mocking the social conventions that reify the status quo: "these times of darkness and fear" mentioned by Irving. And on this score, Unnecessary Farce is not neutral, it is retrograde to the point of puerility.

The action centers around a couple of small-town cops—Eric Sheridan (played by Kevin Atkinson) and Billie Dwyer (played by Charlotte Jusinski)—seemingly selected for this sting operation on the town's mayor because of their ineptitude, not despite it. The show opens with Eric struggling into his white dress shirt, unable to get his fist through his sleeve as he goes over the operation on the phone with his chief. His partner has arrived late because she has stopped for ... what else? Doughnuts (as cop jokes go, tired in the extreme).

Billie, who in Jusinski's interpretation, is as sweet as the crullers she coos at and stuffs in her mouth every chance she gets, explains that she's wearing her uniform to this undercover op because she's celebrating the chance to be what she calls a "real cop"—in her romanticized view that equates to not being stuck behind a desk or on traffic duty, but a chance to stop the bad guys. Armed with a water pistol because she's not entrusted with a real one, they are to videotape Mayor Meekly (played by David McConnell) and safeguard accountant Karen Brown (played by Melissa Christopher) who will do her best to charm the mayor into revealing $16 million worth of irregularities on tape.

Smith, who resides in Brooklyn, wrote his gentle characterizations of police as good apples in 2006, the year the NYPD shot 50 bullets into Sean Bell and his friends (all unarmed), killing Bell who was out celebrating the night before his wedding. In fact, 2006 was to usher in a costly and brutal era of police violence against New Yorkers—a UCLA study published in 2014 in the NYU Law Review found that New York City taxpayers paid out $348 million to awardees of judgements in 6,113 cases alleging civil rights violations by police from 2006-2011. More than $7 million went to the family and friends of Sean Bell.

The ensuing decade has also brought a frightening rise of the militarization of the police to the point where even in a small city like Santa Fe the police flaunt their SWAT vehicles at the annual "Take Back the Night" event on the plaza while handing out free cotton candy and snow cones to children, normalizing the abnormal.

So what are we to make of the presentation of a play like Unnecessary Farce in which the police and politicians are guileless rubes bumbling around a cornball version of small-town America where exclusive whiteness prevails? What are the implications of inducing audiences to mindless laughter at a parade of men in boxer shorts, cosseting them in a kind of political senility? Is Irving unwittingly undermining his own project of challenge, handing out cotton candy while the MRAPs roll in?

Irving sees the political dimension as rooted in individual ethics.

"To me, the political relevance of this show is about personal responsibility," he wrote in response to my email probing his views on the play's seeming disconnect to social and historical relevance. "A theme that runs throughout the play is: 'if you don't stand up for your own morals and ethics then you are complicit in the crimes others commit against society.' All the characters in this play have to make moral judgments about whether to act or not."

Audiences are invited to contemplate the many possibilities of political theater as they proceed through the heady season, which includes a stage adaptation of Orwell's 1984, Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), The Normal Heart, Cabaret and its annual roast of New Mexican politicians, The Fiesta Melodrama.

Unnecessary Farce is being performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe. Showtimes are Thursday – Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Through March 12, 2017. Info at santafeplayhouse.org and 505-988-4262. The running time is a little over 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.


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