Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Happy Birthday
1812 Productions
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of The Marriage of Figaro


Greg Wood and Jennifer Childs
Photo by Mark Garvin
Is anyone in Philadelphia funnier than Jennifer Childs? I don't think so. Short in stature but long on moxie, the actress, comedian, and artistic director of 1812 Productions (which bills itself as "Philadelphia's all-comedy theatre company") can send an audience into hysterics with the smallest flick of her wrist or a perfectly arched eyebrow. And never has that been more apparent than in Happy Birthday, the Marc Camoletti farce that 1812 is giving its Philadelphia premiere.

Camoletti is best known as the author of Boeing-Boeing, the regional and community theater staple about a freewheeling lothario juggling three stewardess fiancées in swinging-sixties Paris. Happy Birthday (originally written in French, and presented here in a translation by Beverly Cross) picks up that thread and transfers it to the English countryside in the early 1980s. The lothario, Bernard (here played by Greg Wood), is now married to Jacqueline (Susan Riley Stevens)—but he remains far from faithful, keeping the bombshell Brigit (Suli Holum) on the side. When his best friend Robert (Scott Greer) turns up for a holiday, Bernard hatches a plan to spend the weekend in the embrace of both his mistress and his wife, by passing Brigit off as Robert's lover. The best laid plans go awry—this is farce, of course—when Childs arrives, playing a gutter-mouthed maid also coincidentally called Brigit. And did I mention that Robert and Jacqueline are actually having an affair?

As much of a whirlwind as this sounds, Happy Birthday is broader and slighter than Boeing Boeing. Although shorter than its predecessor, it runs out of gas long before reaching its denouement, threatening to wear out its welcome. In weaker hands, it very well might seem a long set. Yet in Trey Lyford's smart and stylish production (which plays out on Lance Kniskern's perfectly bougie set), the expert cast—anchored by Childs' comic tour-de-force—makes every slammed door and stammered line of dialogue count.

Neither Wood (who is Stevens' real-life spouse) nor Greer (who, in reality, is married to Childs) quite nail their British accents, but you'll likely be laughing so loudly you may not even notice. Wood ideally captures Bernard's pompous arrogance—his utter conviction that not only can he have his cake and eat it too, but that he deserves to. Greer finds a level of suavity in Robert that not only accentuates the character's slightly bumbling humor, but suggests why Jacqueline and, eventually, both Brigits would find him irresistible. Stevens plays the straight woman with great elan, and Holum (who is Lyford's wife—this production is a real family affair) wrings more laughs out of her part than I expect the script provides.

But the evening belongs to Childs, a performer who manages that rarest of feats: she remains a perfectly integrated member of the ensemble even while she's ostensibly stealing the show. The role of Brigit the maid is guaranteed comedy gold, but in Childs' hands, she's a 24-karat Rolex watch. To see Childs land every laugh, from the most blatant broadside to the subtlest sight gag, is to witness a performer at the very height of her powers, giving an absolute master class in how to perform comedy. I expect a second consecutive Barrymore Award is in her future.

As summer creeps into Philadelphia and the Center City streets start getting steamy, I can't think of a better way to cool off than by ducking into Plays and Players Theater and catching this hilarious production. But if you miss Happy Birthday, fear not—you won't have to wait for long to encounter Bernard and Robert's escapades once again. Next season, Lantern Theater Company will be producing the area premiere of Camoletti's Don't Dress for Dinner, which find the two hopeless men—and their bevy of broads—in very similar circumstances.

Happy Birthday continues through Sunday, May 21, 2017, at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Tickets can be purchased online at www.1812productions.org or by calling 215-592-9560.


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