Theater Review: ‘British’ farce has lots of laughs at Pa. Playhouse
Farce is a type of theater stage comedy designed to entertain through the use of exaggeration, improbable situations and physical shenanigans. In farce, actors may disguise themselves in ridiculous costumes, hide in obvious places or try to hide other people or things. The absurdity of their attempts is what makes us laugh. We, the audience, are in on the deception, and we know something the characters on stage don’t seem to know.
Pennsylvania Playhouse’s latest production, “No Sex Please, We’re British,” through Feb. 25, is classic farce.
The audaciously funny script takes one innocent mistake and builds it into a true comedy of errors. Co-written by Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot, “No Sex” opened in London’s West End in 1971 to scathing reviews, but theater-goers ignored the critics and filled the three houses where it played until 1987. In 1979, it was credited with being the longest-running comedy in world theater history.
Playhouse Director Jan Labellarte Beatty has assembled a wonderfully balanced cast of 10 actors who are well-suited to their roles. Beatty has good talent to work with, but at the Feb. 9 opening night, seen for this review, it was clear her direction got the very best out of their performances.
Margaret Wilson (Frances Hunter) and Drake Nester (Peter Hunter) are the perfect newlywed protagonists whose innocent order for Scandinavian glass is returned as Scandinavian pornographic photos, and more. Together, Wilson and Nester meet the challenge of playing “straight man” to the other kooky characters, and keeping straight-faced and serious while comic bedlam erupts all around them.
Denise Long is the quintessential mother-in-law (Eleanor Hunter), who complicates any efforts to hide anything with her perpetual intrusions and prying. Everything about her portrayal is seamless.
Then there is Mark Nathaniel as Brian, the hapless hysteric who has the pivotal role to play in all the nonsense. Thanks to his hilarious bungling in trying to get rid of the pornography, the police got involved. Nathaniel endows his character with a wide range of emotions and body language that sometimes surprises and always entertains.
In “No Sex,” the set and its doors also have an important part to play. Door slamming is a mainstay of farce. It’s what’s behind the doors and what they are trying to hide from the other doors that make play-goers laugh. Using this gimmick requires split second timing, and Beatty’s cast delivers.
Brett Oliveira’s elaborate set design is not only functional where door slamming is involved, it is also eye-catching. Its brown, beige and gold striping create a tailored look suitable for a proper British flat. Not coincidentally, Paula Hannam’s 1970s-style costumes match the earthy colors of the set, with the exception of Eleanor’s appropriately elegant wardrobe. The new bride’s gaudy patterned pants are definitely 1970s vintage.
There really is no sex in “No Sex Please, We’re British.” What there is, instead, is an evening of madcap humor and lots of laughter. The rest is left to the imagination.
Tickets: Pennsylvania Playhouse Box Office, 390 Illick’s Mill Road, Bethlehem; paplayhouse.org; 610-865-1192