Comedies and farces are frequently funnier if something within them provides a shock of recognition — the feeling that the writer is reflecting something that’s happening within our own lives or our own culture. Even if it’s set in a different culture, it’s still important for us to be able to trace a common human connection.
Of course the details might be exaggerated for comic effect. Carrying a concept or a situation to its logical extreme is often the best way to get laughs along with recognition. But if the play veers too far from recognition or from logic — into the realm of fantasy — the fragile connection to our own lives may be severed.
Yes, Prime Minister, at Geffen Playhouse, is a prime example of how a script that is set in another culture can still stir up plenty of laughs based on the shock of recognition, without tipping too far into fantasy.
The Geffen production is the American premiere of a very British play, but it isn’t just for anglophiles. The leading characters are a chief executive — in this case, the prime minister — and his closest aides, who try to control his agenda and his sources of information. If you don’t think a similar dynamic could exist in the White House or, for that matter, in private-sector executive suites, then you haven’t been paying much attention to recent or not-so-recent American history.
In the case of this 2010 play, which was adapted from a long-running British TV series, the issues these people are facing sound remarkably current — such as economic recovery from a massive crash and the fate of a proposed oil pipeline (no, it isn’t the Keystone but it also start with a ‘K’ — the oil in this case would come from the fictitious country of Kumranistan). By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a map get such a big laugh in another play as I heard when a map of this proposed pipeline was unveiled on a screen during Yes, Prime Minister. I will describe it no further so as not give away the gag.
Still, even with that big laugh I just mentioned, if the subject matter sounds insufficiently “sexed up,” don’t worry. This is a farce, and the dilemma facing the characters also includes a request by the Kumranistan foreign minister for the prime minister’s office to provide some entertainment from prostitutes while he’s staying at Chequers, the prime minister’s country estate. Or course enough American politicians (and Secret Service agents) have recently been involved in their own prostitution scandals for us to sense that this is far from being an extra-terrestrial scenario.
In the Geffen program, at the end of an interview with the director and co-writer Jonathan Lynn (the other co-writer is Antony Jay), Lynn acknowledges that “we have made a few changes for the sake of clarity for an American audience. For instance, we added more information about the European Union, because audiences here may not be that familiar with it. The first editor of The Guardian famously said of his readers: ‘Never overestimate the readers’ information but never underestimate their intelligence.’ That’s the balance we try to strike with audiences.”
That’s a balance that David Mamet failed to strike in November, his recent farce with somewhat similar characters but with a setting in the White House (first produced in 2008 but seen at the Mark Taper Forum last fall). Mamet’s play is obsessed with trivial situations that were seemingly detached from any real-life issues. If Mamet was trying to make the point that government leaders are too obsessed with trivia, at the expense of bigger issues, it didn’t come off that way. It seemed as if he didn’t want to reflect on real issues because he didn’t want the play to be trapped in time. But the script’s issues were so inconsequential that the play felt lifeless, no matter when it was supposed to be set or when it might be produced.
There is one other major issue that’s treated in Yes, Prime Minister, primarily near the end of the play — climate change. This is the point at which an American audience might discern a big transatlantic gap. In the play, doing something significant about climate change is proposed as a way out of the Kumranistan mess, even though this prime minister doesn’t sound as knowledgeable or committed to the subject as even Margaret Thatcher did in prescient comments more than two decades ago. Despite any wavering opinions of his own, however, he sees action on climate change as the politically viable solution — never mind whether it’s necessary.
In America in 2013, of course, most people think such action on climate change is necessary, but it’s still considered politically dangerous, primarily because the party that controls the House still has to bow down to those who deny the science. Almost unwittingly, the American premiere of this play illustrates the difference between the two systems — in the UK, the prime minister is either the head of the majority party in the legislature or at least a coalition government, while in America the legislature can still be controlled by the president’s opponents, leaving the president to rely only on scattered executive orders in order to get anything accomplished on certain subjects. If you think about this in those terms, you’ll certainly take no comfort from concluding that after all, the shenanigans in this play are ultimately British, not American.
Lynn’s cast is mostly American and mostly wonderful. The only Brit is Tara Summers, whose program bio begins with the words “British Actress.” But the cast includes a number of familiar LA theater faces: Dakin Matthews, Michael McKean (in the title role), Brian George, Time Winters, Stephen Caffrey. In the Shavian tradition, the play has a lot of words, perhaps a few too many, but I would never cut the elaborate and deliberately obfuscatory arias spoken to perfection by Matthews.
Then again, one of the funniest moments is virtually wordless, and it’s given to Jefferson Mays — also an American, though not so much an LA actor — as he self-consciously tries to tone down his look into something more casual. Known for his ability to transmute into many roles within one production (he did his multi-tasking solo performance in I Am My Own Wife for the Geffen), he remains one very consistent character here despite his brief efforts to change his look. His performance is a formidable comic concoction.
**All Yes, Prime Minister production photos by Michael Lamont.
Yes, Prime Minister, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Ends July 14. www.GeffenPlayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
Opening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on the same night as Yes, Prime Minister was Andrea Thome’s English translation of Neva, Guillermo Calderón’s little play in which Chekhov’s widow Olga Knipper (Sue Cremin) and two fellow Russian actors Ramón de Ocampo, Ruth Livier) are huddled together around a heat lamp in 1905, rehearsing and fretting while intimations of revolution rage outside. Fitting the size of the play, Neva was presented not in the main Douglas auditorium but rather in a small upstairs rehearsal room.
The production closed at the Douglas yesterday but now moves on to South Coast Repertory, where it will play this week. From there it moves to La Jolla Playhouse for another week.
Neva made quite a splash at the Radar L.A. festival in 2011 in its original Spanish-spoken, English-subtitled version at REDCAT, from Chile’s Teatro en el Blanco. In retrospect, the reactions were probably due primarily to the unusual stage directions that apparently call for no lighting other than the heat lamp. The production conveys a shadowy, rather dreamy quality, thanks to the restricted lighting.
This is an unusual look for what is essentially a comedy about three neurotic actors worrying about their performances, their images, and about whether what they do has any meaning compared to what’s happening on the streets outside the theater. These, of course, mirror some of the concerns and moods in the work of Chekhov himself, who also considered his plays to be comedies but whose writing usually is described with words such as “bittersweet” and “melancholy.”
On second viewing, it’s hard not to compare Neva to Chekhov’s plays, and — no surprise here — the comparison favors Chekhov. Neva looks like a minor experiment more than a major original. If you lower your expectations accordingly, you might find yourself at least momentarily entranced by Neva. But a warning to all lighting designers out there — no one has that title in this production, and you may feel that the production instills professional irritation and foreboding more than dreamy comedy.
And now for two comedies that fly too far into fantasy for the shock of recognition to really kick in.
Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, revived by International City Theatre, begins with the intriguing premise of a woman (Alina Phelan) in a café discovering that a fellow diner has died when he won’t answer the annoying ringing of his cell phone. This quickly turns into a comedy of manners, more or less, as the woman takes charge of answering the man’s phone, pretending that she knew him. She soon becomes obsessed with offering fictitious but presumably soothing lies to his grieving relatives about the man and his relationships to the bereaved.
So far, so good, in Richard Israel’s staging — there’s nothing wrong with this production. But by play’s end we still don’t learn enough about why the protagonist takes this course of action. And Ruhl pursues a self-consciously wild narrative that takes the woman to another continent and then to the afterlife and turns the play from successful comedy of manners into unsuccessful sketch comedy.
By the way, as I was leaving for Long Beach to see Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I couldn’t find my own cell phone. So in the back of my head, while I watched this play with “cell phone” in the title, I was a little concerned about my own phone and where it might be. I’m not sure if this made me less receptive to the play. It might actually have increased my interest. But it also made me more aware that the play was from an era when people still mostly talked on their phones instead of using them to text or to check the internet. How time flies (for the record, I found the phone when I returned home).
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob: A Life in Five Acts, an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre, begins as a cartoon, not as a comedy of manners. A baby is born and abandoned in a White Castle in Louisville, only to be immediately stolen by an employee of the fast-food joint. She takes the infant and then the boy with her on an odyssey across America. As in Ruhl’s play, we have no idea why she does this, nor why she later dies. But that’s hardly the end of the play. Bob drags on as a long-winded cartoon in which many things happen for no reason, far into Bob’s adulthood.
I remember being marginally more engaged by Bob in its premiere, in Louisville in 2011 — I can’t say if that’s because the production was better than Chris Fields’ for Echo or if the play’s few charms are inevitably more fleeting the second time around. Probably the latter — the LA cast is capable enough, even if the production design isn’t nearly as lavish as Louisville’s.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone, International City Theatre at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Ends June 30. www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. 562-436-4610.
Bob: A Life in Five Acts, Echo Theater at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Ends June 30. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. 877-369-9112.
I caught only one Hollywood Fringe Festival production over the weekend, but at more than two hours (with an intermission!) it’s surely one of the longest shows in the mostly short-form Fringe fare. And it sounds as if the new Good People Theater Company that’s behind this musical at Lillian Theatre is determined to continue producing in LA, in contrast to many of the other Fringe offerings.
It’s the LA premiere of a musical, A Man of No Importance, which was created by the same team of Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally that turned out Ragtime.
This musical is much smaller and well, of less importance, than Ragtime, but it tells a story that gets more interesting as it goes along — in contrast to, say, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Bob. Set in 1964 Dublin, the title character is a middle-aged bus conductor who lives with his sister. The joy in his life revolves around the plays he directs in a church hall with amateurs, but his decision to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome sets him on a rocky road that eventually opens the door of his gay closet — with a number of grim results, although the ending feels somewhat artificially pumped up with feel-good sentiment.
While it isn’t a great musical, it’s consistently absorbing, and Janet Miller’s staging is powered by what sounds like an authentic four-piece Irish band (Corey Hirsch is the music director). Although there was an apparently last-minute substitution in one role, most of the Good People on the stage are good enough to treat the tale with the respect it deserves.
A Man of No Importance, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way at Santa Monica Blvd. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Sat June 29 2 pm. Ends June 30. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1093. 323-455-4585.