The Play What I Wrote by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Choreography by Irving Davies, Heather Cornell. Set and Costume Design by Alice Power. Light Design by Tim Mitchell. Sound Design by Simon Baker for Autograph. Original Songs by Gary Yershon. Musical Arrangements by Steve Parry. Cast: Sean Foley, Hamish McColl, with Toby Jones and Mystery Guest Star. Originally Produced at The Liverpoll Everyman and Playhouse, Executive Director: Josephine Beddoe. The Producers Wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
Even if you've never heard of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, you know them. Or at least you know the type. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even George Burns and Gracie Allen, are all bountiful examples of the wonders of comic teamwork. In The Play What I Wrote, which just opened at the Lyceum Theatre, Foley and McColl are staking their claim to similar fame (notoriety?) in the United States.
With the current state of international affairs and difficulties just on Broadway alone, their arrival could not have been more well timed. The Play What I Wrote is not quite one of those shows that will find you laughing so much your jaw hurts at the end, but it will be aching. Close enough; just being subjected to Foley and McColl, like Morecambe and Wise - the 1970s British comedy team to whom they're frequently compared - is a welcome experience.
The jokes may be topical - McColl, draped in the Blue, White, and Red: "I'm France, and parts of me are revolting!" - or slapstick - a giant breadstick becomes an instrument of prolonged torture at one point - but the forms, if seldom unique, are very funny and laid almost continually back to back. With a team like these two - McColl the straight man and Foley the do-anything-for-a-laugh comic - who could ever be unhappy?
That would be McColl, who's grown weary with never getting laughs of his own and has turned his attention toward becoming a serious playwright. He even has a "brilliant new play" - A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple, about the French revolution, what else? - he's written that he hopes to have produced on Broadway. But that requires a producer willing to take risks, and while one may sign the famous comedy team of Foley and McColl, signing just McColl probably won't happen.
So Foley enlists the help of Arthur (Toby Jones) to convince McColl to come to America and perform their act (not necessarily McColl's play) by any means necessary. And this involves, as one might expect, Jones's disguising himself as the Shubert Organization's Gerald Schoenfeld, actress Daryl Hannah, or even esteemed Broadway producer Mike Tickles... and so on.
You get the idea. If this style of broad music hall-type comedy, replete with mistaken identity and even musical numbers (fetchingly composed here by Gary Yershon and choreographed by Irving Davies and Heather Cornell), doesn't appeal to you, most likely neither will The Play What I Wrote. There is a play here, but ultimately comedy is king. Yet, even if the light touch of director Kenneth Branagh won't win many converts or keep most audience members from realizing they're watching something impeccably staged and copiously rehearsed, one element of the show may well keep them coming back time and time again.
In addition to the three players mentioned above, who are all incredibly talented and humorous, each performance features a Mystery Guest Star who arrives late in the second act to lend some name value to McColl's play. Yet as significant portions of the second act (including sight gags) are scripted around specific guest stars, each star becomes an inextricable element of the action. The show's Broadway preview period included appearances by such luminaries as Roger Moore, Liam Neeson, Nathan Lane, and Zoe Caldwell, none of whom could have just "fit in" to the show.
And it's when that Mystery Guest Star shows up that all bets are off and the true talents of McColl, Foley, and Jones are realized with part script, part improvisation, and all creativity. The performance I attended found Kevin Kline the guest, with volley after volley of jokes about Patsy Cline, Calvin Klein, and so on. Kline was a tremendous sport, putting his elevated bravura and unquestionable stage presence to excellent use in McColl's play, perhaps every actor's worst nightmare.
Whether donning an exquisitely cartoonish French gown (courtesy of costume designer Alice Power, who also provided the sparkling and surprising sets), facing the guillotine, or singing and dancing with an unlikely chorus line, Kline remained part of the show's tight comic ensemble. He was willing to lend gravitas to the show while never intentionally stealing focus, equally willing to make his own jokes as make sure others' landed.
But the show's Mystery Guest Star element is needed for precisely that reason, to better explore the nature and human construction of comedy. Without question, The Play What I Wrote wants the audience to have a good time, but at its core is a salute to the indefatigable spirit of comedy, the indefinable synergy that separates the good from the great and the legendary, the type of electricity, surprise, and invention that can reduce the highest-wattage stars to supporting player status and elevate two supreme comic talents - if relatively unknown in this country - to Broadway stardom.
So, if the lure of a surprise major star is able to get audiences to return to The Play What I Wrote multiple times, so much the better. Audiences will be paying tribute to a tradition of comedy and performance that is at once agent and likely to not die out soon. As long as it's still kicking (and pratfalling) - and as long as Foley and McColl grace Broadway - we're all richer.