John Gielgud used to say that the secret to playing farce successfully was to do it absolutely straight, like a practical joke you're not letting anyone else in on. Speed is the second most needed requirement, of course — and a script that piles up the incidents until they snowball almost out of control.
All of these elements and more are on display at Thompson Theatre with Ray Cooney's perfectly (and thankfully) ridiculous farce Funny Money, the second entry in TheatreFest 2003, produced by University Theatre at N.C. State. Funny Money's director, Terri L. Janney, keeps the action going at such a clip that you don't stop to consider too deeply the play's absurdities, which seems to me the ideal means of directing a farce.
Janney has assembled a superb cast of farceurs for the production, headed by the flawless John C. McIlwee, who seems wholly unaware of just how achingly funny he can be. In these pages, Janney recently told Robert McDowell she thought McIlwee "has some of the best timing in comedy that I have ever seen." Perhaps the key to his success lies in the fact that he thinks he's playing the straight role.
Funny Money involves a white-collar husband, a pair of mismatched briefcases, £750,000 in cash, an impulsive plan to abscond from England to the Continent, a recalcitrant wife getting progressively stinko, a dead body presumed to be that of the husband, two baffled dinner guests, two police inspectors (one bogus, one genuine), an impatient cabbie, an unseen — and presumably foreign — gangster who keeps calling the house in search of his "brerfcurse," and — for all I could tell — a partridge and a pear tree. It's all the purest nonsense, and played to the hilt under Wil Kiser's apt lighting, on Corky Pratt's superb set, and in Ida Bostian's deliciously individualized costumes.
If the production has a blemish, it can't be blamed either on the director or her splendid ensemble. Cooney's script sags perceptibly in the second act, and takes some time to gather up steam again before the final payoff. This lull may be inevitable following a first act of such rollicking hilarity. (Moss Hart had the same problem in Light Up the Sky.)
Much of the cast will be familiar to TheatreFest devotees: Dorothy Brown as the wife, surrendering her beauty to the practicality of pre-dinner party barrettes and her dignity to the act of becoming thoroughly soused as the evening progresses, which she does with brio. Danny Norris, whom I've never seen be funnier than he is here, as the outraged half of a couple that could only be British. His comic agony is a joy to behold, and his unexpected yet inevitable first act spit-take is priceless.
JoAnne Dickenson is most agreeably blowsy as Norris's less shockable helpmeet, and David Klionsky more than makes up for his shameless mugging in The Hollow with his dead-perfect performance here as an increasingly flummoxed police inspector. Eric Corley makes the most of his role as the weirdly unperturbed taxi man, and Ben Kraudel has an effective cameo as the much-mentioned, seldom-seen "Mr. Big."
Topping them all is Linh B. Schladweiler as the duplicitous "Inspector Davenport" (and they believe him, with a name like that!). This is an actor who grows stronger, more assured, and more effortlessly convincing with each performance. In a role that could be done in by sheer smarminess, Schladweiler gives us a cool demeanor and nothing more overtly telling than a perpetual smirk of scheming satisfaction. It's a performance of breathtaking control — the still center about which whirl so many comic dervishes. Much of the play's hilarity depends on his witnessing a series of desperately improvised and progressively hilarious tableaux that suggest a stunning array of sexual license, and there is in his demeanor a suggestion of perverse amusement, as if he might join in, if someone made it worth his while. And is it my imagination, or is he getting sexier with time?
Finally, there is John McIlwee, as the honest businessman whose sudden possession of so much tax-free cash cracks open his psyche to reveal the grubby everyman in all of us. From his first entrance, his back to the closed front door, a look of inexplicable panic on his face and clutching that troublesome briefcase, we are in the hands of a master. He has a way of going from slow burn to accelerated verbal explosion that is utterly unique, and his terrified reaction to hearing the dread word "brerfcurse" from an unexpected guest — a sharp intake of breath, as though the air has forced itself inside his mouth and means to get down his throat no matter what — is the quintessence of comic delirium. Yet throughout, McIlwee is, as always, utterly believable.
It was my pleasure last week to commend John McIlwee to you as a director. This week, I am equally happy to pay tribute to him as a comedian of genius. See Funny Money for yourself, and I don't think you will pillory me for the recommendation.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents TheatreFest 2003-The Hollow (8 p.m. June 13), Funny Money (8 p.m. June 12, 14, 18, and 21 and 3 p.m. June 15), and Deathtrap (8 p.m. June 19, 20, and 25-28 and 3 p.m. June 22 and 29)-NCSU's Thompson Theatre, Raleigh, NC. $33 season ticket ($27 students and seniors, $25 NCSU faculty/staff/alumni association member, and $15 NCSU students). $13 single ticket ($11 students and seniors and NCSU faculty/staff/alumni association member, and $6 NCSU students). 919/515-1100. http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/theatrefest2003.htm [inactive 9/03]. To download TheatreFest 2003 brochure in PDF format: http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/University_Players/files/TFest%20Brochure2003.pdf [inactive 9/03].