Mike Leigh farce falls on its unfunny face

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 18, 2002 at 3:05 PM
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NEW YORK, June 18 (UPI) -- An off-Broadway production of Mike Leigh's comedy, "Smelling a Rat," proves that even a talented playwright and screenwriter can have an off day, especially when attempting to write farce, the most difficult of all theatrical forms.

Leigh, the British writer best remembered for his films "Topsy-Turvy" and "Secrets and Lies," has said he set out to created an "anti-farce" for the stage when he wrote "Smelling a Rat" in 1988. What he succeeded in doing was writing a boring, two-hour exercise in futility that takes itself too seriously, lacks requisite biting wit, and wastes the talents of five actors, two of whom are young TV stars who deserve better stage opportunities.

If Leigh intended to spoof farce, he obviously has gone about it in the wrong way. The many doors necessary to frenetic entrances and exits of over-the-top comedy are there on the stage of the Samuel Beckett Theater, but they are not used often enough, so that the action has a way of lagging when it should be sprinting, and the cast spends too much of its time pausing to listening to offstage voices.

"Smelling a Rat" is a production of New Group, which won its first Obie Award for best off-Broadway play in 1995 with Leigh's "Ecstasy" and also produced the playwright's "Goose-Pimples" in 1998. Scott Elliott, artistic director of New Group, directed "Ecstasy" and also directs "Smelling a Rat," his first show since "The Women" on Broadway last season.

Elliott has done the best he can with the material given him, the story of a vermin exterminator who returns unexpectedly to his London apartment from a Christmas holiday abroad to find one of his employees and the employee's wife on the premises. Actually the couple is there on a legitimate visit -- at the request of the pest control company's foreman -- to see that nothing is amiss in the exterminator's absence, but he does not know that.

Hidden away in one of the set's six walk-in closets is the exterminator's son, a sullen, virtually wordless sort, and his flaky girlfriend, on the premises for a sexual matinee on the big bed that occupies much of the stage. Their arrival forces the employee and his wife to hide in two other closets in the best tradition of farce.

When the father reveals himself, waving a huge revolver, the girlfriend locks herself in a bathroom, and the employee and his wife begin an elaborate and embarrassingly servile explanation of their presence in an attempt to make a graceful departure. In the end, the exterminator packs an overnight bag and flees, having allowed the employee couple make their exit, and leaving the apartment to his hapless son and his incredibly naïve girlfriend.

Perhaps he is going to a hotel. Perhaps he is going back to sunny Spain to rejoin his wife who is still vacationing there. Perhaps he is just as happy as the audience that the play is finally over. Who knows? Who cares?

Playing the role of the exterminator, Rex Weasel, is the wonderful Broadway veteran Terence Rigby, who is given little to do but act confused, angry, and fed up with the fools he has to deal with. The biggest fool is his employee, Vic, an adage-quoting Mr. Malaprop played with outstanding comic distinction by Brian F. O'Byrne, whose talents are neatly matched by British-born actress Gillian Foss as Vic's sycophantic wife, Charmaine.

Whatever Leigh had in mind when he created the enigmatically silent character of Rock, the exterminator's son whose approach to sex is violent attack, there is little there for an actor to work with. Eddie Kaye Thomas, currently starring in "Off Centre" on the WB television channel, is lost in this thankless role that calls for a lot of standing around, looking threatening.

Michelle Williams of "Dawson's Creek" television fame deserves some praise for trying to make the role of Melanie-Jane, Rock's stupid, hysterical girlfriend, believable. But she has been given a gross caricature instead of a sympathetic role, and she only succeeds in making what should have been an amusing character a very irritating young woman.

Kevin Price's set is a jewel of a bedroom reflecting the tastes of a lower-class couple jumped up to a middle-class income level during the era of Margaret Thatcher materialism. The wonderful collection of stuffed animals on the bed, the profusion of cheap art glassware and pottery on the shelves, and the theatrical makeup table framed in bare light bulbs says it all about the social status to which Rex Weasel and his absent wife aspire.

Jason Lyons has devised the tricky lighting that plays an important role in this farce that really isn't a farce, and Eric Becker's costumes reek of the decline of fashion into banality that marked the 1980s, an era reflected in the cartoon music supplied by Tom Kochan to soften some of the aptly titled play's longueurs with nostalgia.

Unfortunately, "Smelling a Rat" does not have the sweet smell of success that usually accompanies Mike Leigh's dramatic work.

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