Diehard Mike Leigh fans have hit the jackpot here in Boston. The Nora Theatre production of his 1988 play Smelling a Rat is at Boston Playwrights' Theatre now through November 10th and his latest film All or Nothing opens this Friday.
For those only familiar with Leigh as the director or Topsy-Turvy, be forewarned that that glorious homage to the Victorian theatre world is atypical. Most of his films and plays are developed in rehearsal with a small company of actors using Leigh's own particular brand of improvisation to create characters and then fashion situations into a story of sorts.
The "slice of life" in this case is the financially successful working class easily taken with a bedroom that boasts an over-upholstered bed, lush pink carpets, an endless wall of built-in clothes cupboards and an "en suite" bath complete with bidet.
The people behaving badly are Rex Weasel (Randall A. Forsythe), the owner of the flat who returns early from Christmas holiday without his wife, and two other couples who show up expecting to find the place empty. First to arrive are Vic and Charmaine Maggott (Paul Kerry and Stephanie Dorian), an insubordinate employee of Rex's pest extermination business and his dotty wife. Next on the scene are Rex's stupefying son Rock (Charles Linshaw) and his girlfriend of the moment, Melanie-Jane Beetles (Mara Sidmore.)
Given the character's names and the delightful pink and purple set by Eric Levenson dominated by more than enough slightly askew doors, the expectation is that we're in for a rollicking good bedroom farce. While much of the action under Daniel Gidron's acute direction is very physical (and amazingly well executed given the long narrow playing space dominated by the bed), farce isn't the thrust of the piece.
Knowing Leigh's unusual development process, it's not surprising that the emphasis is more on character and less on situation. In unskilled hands, this could get us nowhere fast, but thanks to a fine company of actors, especially Kerry and Dorian who dominate much of the piece, we have fascinating portraits of people in a particular time (1988) and place (suburban London).
Every one of Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes is also spot on from Rex's golfing regalia and his son's diametrically opposed black leather to Charmaine's carefully composed holiday party outfit, Melanie-Jane's attempt at sophistication and the "Paddington Bear" wool jacket that Vic never removes.
What doesn't add up is the second half of the play. With five characters stumbling into a provocative situation and things being overheard that were meant to be private, the possibilities are too ripe to ignore. Questions are raised that go unanswered, and fuses get lit that never ignite much of anything. As fascinating as this portrait of life is and despite the suburb execution here; ultimately, the play runs out of steam and ends without satisfying.
Smelling a Rat is at Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue (at Boston University) now through November 10th. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Seating is general admission with tickets priced at $25. The performance on October 31st is designated as pay what you can. There are wine tastings after the show on Wednesday evenings and post-performance discussions on Sunday, November 3rd and Thursday, November 7th. For tickets and further information call the Nora Box Office at 617-491-2026. Tickets can also be purchased at Ticketmaster outlets and the Bostix booths in Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Copley Square or by calling Ticketmaster PhoneCharge at 617-931-2000.