With one two-act-long scene, eight loudly slamming doors, and countless head-over-heels tumbles, Unnecessary Farce by Paul Slade Smith makes its hilarious D.C. premiere at the Keegan Theatre. Directed by Ray Ficca, this true-to-style farce tails two stumbling undercover cops in their attempts to expose an embezzling mayor and in the process crashes headlong into a mafia ring, a hitman, and an accountant who can’t seem to keep her clothes on.
Kicking off the farcically good time was Billie, played by Jenna Lawrence. A junior cop and regrettably talented linguist, Billie manages to be unskilled with just about every tool of a cop’s trade. Though her self-assured naiveté was always ready to take on a challenge, it was a few “typical Billie” blunders that set this production’s amusing train wreck off to the great start; wearing her uniform to an undercover stakeout as one example and bringing snacks as another.
Easily the most physical comedian in this merry cast, Lawrence’s Billie quite literally hopped, flipped, and rolled her way to cascades of laughter. Much like the outlandish comedy of the Marx Brothers, Billie was wrapped in lovable gaffes, endearing ineptitudes, and miles of heart.
Not to be out-bumbled was Billie’s partner in (taking down) crime, Eric, played by Noah Schaefer. Nervous and inexperienced, Eric struggled to keep the undercover operation moving in the face of his and Billie’s unintentional actions that continually undermine it. Perpetually caught between his desires of fight or flight, Schaefer’s expressive face illustrated every flicker of fear, confidence, and then fear again that entered Eric’s mind. These briefest previews of each impulsive, harebrained idea were a delight and testament to Schaefer’s comedic flair, earning him some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Key pawn in the investigation and love interest to Eric was the new city hall accountant, Karen, played by Emily Levey. Left to deal with some pretty suggestive situations in her hotel room throughout the play’s continual and rapid narrative, Karen managed to find her way into some scandalous positions. Levey’s self-confident and initiative-taking portrayal of Karen was not only the perfect balance to Eric’s timidity, but wonderfully matched the ludicrous situations unfolding around her.
The main instigator of many of said situations and overall fidgety flip-flop was Agent Frank, played by Christopher Herring. A lanky cartoon of a man, Herring was a fascinating mixture of machismo, Casanova, and cowardice. Be it securing a hotel room for his boss or baring his conscious to Karen/the surveillance camera, Herring’s voice and body bounced from corner to corner of the stage. Much like John Cleese, his bounding strides and crumbling facial expressions whipped the audience from one extreme to the next.
In complete contrast was the soft-spoken and gentle mayor, played by Mario Baldessari. Under suspicion of embezzling $16 million from the city, this dotty elected official hardly seemed the type, but with a private security detail and odd requests to meet alone in hotel rooms, perhaps he wasn’t so innocent after all. To an audience unsure of what to think, Baldessari always seemed to show up when it was the least convenient, not to mention the most embarrassing, and his sing-songy voice was disarming. Baldessari’s Mayor walked the fine line between absentminded and evasive and carried with it some truly side-splitting line deliveries.
Towering in stature and rippling in brogue, Jon Townson as the mysterious Todd exponentially accelerated the play’s chain of events to more than a few comedic climaxes. I cannot say I understood everything his fiery Scottish accent was shouting as he carelessly waved pistols in the air, but with good reason, because neither could any of the other characters. To be both utterly imposing and at the same time still capable of buffooning as much as the rest of the cast was impressive for someone of that height and with that hair.
Also playing with a Scottish accent with Mrs. Meekly played by Karen Novack. Popping in and out of various doors looking for her husband the mayor, Novack’s loud and sprightly portrayal only occasionally let you glimpse the woman beneath and for good reason, though not one to be spoiled here.
But where this production really shined was in the skillfully sharp and rapid-fire delivery of the play’s many and constant absurdities. A pace that could have easily become overwhelming or negative in its ridiculousness, instead consistently kept me on the edge of my seat with a smile on my face if not a more frequent laugh. The interplay between characters and across rooms was expert, unexpected, and deliciously original, and the ability of this production to seamlessly incorporate so many one-liners, set-ups, physical stunts, chase scenes, and more than a few compromising situation was a talent in and of itself. Unnecessary Farce, from its writing to its handcuffs, was a lesson in the innocently, earnestly absurd.
Equally as caricatured from reality was the solid work of the artistic team. Ray Ficca’s direction, in particular, I found to be impressively, and at times impossibly, fluid in which every inch of Matthew J. Keenan’s set design and every piece of Peter Mikhail’s properties design was put to the test. Sound design by Madeline Clamp and lighting design by Dan Martin kept the set solidly rooted in the 2000s, while costume design by Liz Gossens and hair and make-up design by Craig Miller subtly underlined the ridiculous in each of the outlandish main characters, from baby pink pencil skirts to a truly horrid yellow and blue flowered tie. Such a ruckus production clearly had a team of dedicated theater artists working their magic to make the show a success.
A good ol’ ridiculous time from start to finish, Unnecessary Farce offers an entertaining escape from the seriousness of the outside world and pokes some good-hearted fun at the cop dramas genre we all know so well. (Yes, in case you were wondering, there were doughnuts.) Absolutely recommended for a great night of laughter and fun, Unnecessary Farce hits the mark with its wit, its farce, and its Tallahassee Flips.
Running Time: Two hours including one 15-minute intermission.