The play opens on the night before youngest brother Lafcad's wedding. Not 24 hours before the ceremony, and Lafcad has called it off. His oldest brother Andrew is furious - because "this family simply cannot afford" another humiliating scandal; it might affect their father's appeal. Besides, Andrew is running for political office - he wants to be Louisiana's State Auditor - and this would not reflect well on his campaign. And Lafcad's fiancee has money, which the Clays are finding in precious short supply. It doesn't even cross Andrew's mind to consider whether the marriage would have been good for Lafcad. Indeed, Andrew momentarily suspects Lafcad might have " ... tendencies," but that's all right as long as Lafcad marries tomorrow.
Andrew's lack of concern for Lafcad is shared by Andrew's father-in-law Ed, who believes cancelling the wedding will ruin Andrew's family and, by implication, taint his. While Ridiculous Fraud is an ensemble piece, to the extent it is concerned with the lengths to which people go to deceive themselves that they are honorable people, it focuses on Andrew and Ed - as the two men seem to outdo each other in their hypocrisy.
There is a third Clay brother. Between the self-satisfied superiority of Andrew (played by Matt McGrath with a believable blindness to the truth surrounding him) and the overwhelmed Lafcad (Ian Fraser, with all the philosophical thoughtfulness and discontent with life of someone who could really use a few years away at college) is middle-brother Kap. Kap, alone among the brothers, seems satisfied with his lot in life. Comfortable with being unmarried, living in a rustic cabin, and going on duck hunts, Kap isn't buying into Andrew's view of success. Matt Letscher makes certain Kap's easygoing attitude is not mistaken for a lack of values. Kap has his own views of what is honorable, and is not afraid to speak up when he is disappointed in others.
Providing a veritable minefield of dilemmas for the Clay brothers to navigate are several other characters. Betsy Brandy plays Willow - Andrew's wife and Ed's daughter. Willow causes problems for all involved. She's not satisfied with her marriage, nor her father's. Ed (a suitably blustering Paul Vincent O'Connor) remarried shortly after Willow's mother passed away; Willow believes the marriage was too soon and distrusts Ed's new wife. South Coast Repertory regular Nike Doukas plays Maude, the stepmother Willow refuses to be in the same room with. Doukas's Maude is hard woman, but she gets the audience's attention when she says Willow should be happy because she'll be "leaving" soon - putting a world of meaning into a slightly emphasized word. Rounding out the ensemble are Randy Oglesby as the brothers' "Uncle Baites" and Eliza Pryor as Georgia, the somewhat dim young woman whom Uncle Baites took to Lafcad's pre-wedding dinner, even though he had only met her that day. Georgia plants herself rather incongruously in the Clays' living room, sitting in a most unladylike manner while scratching where her crinoline itches.
With all of that going on, Ridiculous Fraud could be either a comedy or a drama. As it happens, it's both. The play's third scene is the funniest, venturing into all-out farce in the middle of Kap's cabin. But it is a farce carried out under a dark cloud, as the scene starts by foreshadowing a threat, and ends with the deepest, most thought-provoking moment of the play. Henley balances comic and tragic with skill, and the result is surprisingly affecting comedy.
Ridiculous Fraud runs through November 19 at South Coast Repertory. For more information, visit www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory - David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director - presents Ridiculous Fraud by Beth Henley. Scenic Design Hugh Landwehr; Costume Design Joyce Kim Lee; Lighting Design Peter Maradudin' Sound Design Stephen LeGrand; Fight Director Martin Noyes; Dramaturg John Glore; Production Manager David Leavenworth; Stage Manager Randall K. Lum. Directed by Sharon Ott.