The Guardian’s Michael Billington once wrote, “…at its best, farce makes us laugh uncontrollably while showing human beings reduced to a state of desperation.” This quote comes from an article intended as a response to critics of the form who decry the sexism often found in farce as well as the manner in which classical archetypes can easily devolve into crude stereotypes, especially in more modern examples of the form. It’s easy enough to point out that most of these scripts are by men, which makes defense of the “universal, flexible” nature of the style a little harder to swallow. However, at what point do we say enough is enough? Whose responsibility is it to remedy the state of broad, slapstick comedy? Is it the playwrights? The theaters who produce the shows? Or is it the audiences who continue to pay money and spend two hours thoroughly enjoying themselves with some bawdy escapism? In an era in which theaters are pulling plays from their rotation for not being able to address outdated plotlines and characterizations, is there still room for nuns in their underwear and kooky courtesans? At Newport Playhouse, the answer to the latter question is a firm yes. Their current offering, the Michael Parker-penned There’s A Burglar In My Bed features the usual bumbling, yet lovable lugs surrounded by a torrent of often oversexed and scantily clad women. Is it funny? Certainly, in spite of itself, there are plenty of laughs to be had. Should it be produced? Well, a mostly sold-out audience, guffawing throughout, seemed to think that it should be.
Director Tony Annicone is an old hand at this style and amps up each moment for maximum laughs and titillation. The plot is familiar, but clever, centering around an invaluable necklace (prompting the use of the “Pink Panther” theme at top of show) and a series of marital affairs. After 13 years of marriage the wealthy William W. Worthington III (Rick Bagley) and his wife Ashley (Sandi Nicastro, whose comic timing is always a pleasure), are contemplating divorce. Their estate consists of a 200-acre compound, with a 16-bedroom mansion and a smaller beach cottage. Thanks to a pre-nuptial agreement, both know precisely what to expect from a divorce settlement. There is one item, however, that both parties want — the famous Worthington necklace. Since both want to keep the necklace for themselves, both William (Billy) and Ashley devise separate plans to steal the necklace. Billy tells Ashley he will be away for the weekend shooting ducks in Delaware, while Ashley tells Billy she is visiting her mother in Boston that same weekend. Both, however, have planned weekend trysts in the beach house. Billy with his lover, Buffy (Rebecca Christie), and Ashley with her lover, Teddy (Josh Fogarty).
According to the pre-nuptial agreement, the only way for Ashley to share the assets, and therefore have a chance to keep the necklace, is for her to divorce her husband for adultery. They devise a plan to simulate a seduction and replace the necklace with a fake. The following dialogue sums up the tone of everything that follows:
ASHLEY. Where do you hire a woman like that? I mean we can’t just look in the yellow pages under seductress. You don’t know anyone like that, do you Teddy?
TEDDY. No. I’m afraid not, though I could probably hazard a guess there’s a few women at the country club who are probably quite experienced at it.
ASHLEY. That’s it! Marianne Van Kleef.
TEDDY. Who’s she?
ASHLEY. A friend of mine, we play tennis together. She’s broken almost as many marriages as Trump has campaign promises. I’ve known her for years. We were in high school together. She was voted the girl most likely to.
TEDDY. The girl most likely to what?
ASHLEY. Nothing, just the girl most likely to.
TEDDY. Oh, I see! Oh dear! Do you think she could pull it off?
ASHLEY. Let’s put it this way, at the tennis club she’s known as the US Open!
Enter a private detective practiced in the art of the pratfall and some amusing word salad (Lou Perrotta’s repetitive shtick actually grows on you over the course of the play to the point where you wind up rooting for him to get that elusive incriminating photograph). Then we have the abovementioned Ms. Van Kleef. Tonya Killavey portrays the wanton neighbor with a depth and restraint that does not sacrifice her keen, droll delivery. Killavey also deserves some kind of award for the sheer number of times she is made to get in and out of her clothes while still keeping the action moving forward. It’s a part that could be easily dismissed as the sexist trope that it is, but Killavey brings a complexity and a confidence to the part that makes it hard to dismiss so easily. She also pulls double-duty as the designer of a nicely executed double-room set, so Burglar winds up being something of a showcase for her talents. Sarah Reed completes the ensemble as Buffy’s sister, Deborah, who is more than eager to play along with whatever shenanigans ensue.
Whatever laughs are provided, the plain truth is that all of these people are plain awful, wallowing in their greed and privilege while attempting to cheat and/or sleep with each other at every turn. Questions of how well this production is executed are moot, since the script is one of the most egregious examples of the problems with modern farce that can be found on stage today. Are those of us who are not amused by this type of theater simply hatchet-faced fuddy duddies who need to relax and let go for a few hours? One could make that case, but I suspect that even those who appeared to have a great time watching Burglar would be hard-pressed to defend not the quality, but the substance of the script. No matter who presents this show (and if anyone else does, they may want to ask Killavey to join them, in order to ensure that they have at least one performer who understands how to undersell this type of comedy), it will never be more than another example of rotten people doing rotten things. Farce may be desperate, but we don’t have to be, especially when it comes to choosing what we see.
The Newport Playhouse and Cabaret Restaurant presents Michael Parker’s There’s A Burglar In My Bed through October 6. 102 Connell Highway, Newport, Rhode Island, 02840. For tickets and more information, call 401-848-PLAY (7529). The play is presented without intermission.