BODY POLITICS: Of vicars, padded bras and lost
by Steven Leigh Morris
L-R: Shirley Knight, Robert Foxworth, Marian Mercer,
Nancy Lanahan & Gregory Cooke
saw Charles Hallahan perform in 1974, in a small San Francisco stage
production of Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
He played Randall McMurphy, a free-spirited fellow lobotomized for
his rebellious actions in the mental institution to which he has
been committed. Now, I'm not suggesting that Jack Nicholson didn't
turn in a terrific performance in the later movie version, but when
it comes to wise lunatics, Hallahan, for me, is definitive.
That was the same summer I ambled into a
restaurant-bar, wondering what a small crowd was so taken with on
the TV. There was Richard Nixon, flickering in black and white,
drowning in the Watergate flood, voice cracking, resigning his
presidency. A single message emerges from the respective downfalls
of the two characters: you can't always do what you want — and get
away with it.
So here we are, 20 years later. I wander into a
hotel lobby in L.A. to find a knot of people transfixed by images on
a TV: elite Marine Corps guards firing rifles into the sky, a solemn
Bill Clinton, a flag-draped casket — Nixon's funeral. A few weeks
later, I'm reviewing Alan Bennett's 1973 English sex farce,
Habeas Corpus, at the Matrix Theater, and there's Charles
Hallahan again, once more dressed in institutional white, a tad more
corpulent than when I first saw him, but just as nimble on his feet
— again bellowing and swaggering, the twinkle in the eye
undiminished. Now, rather than the patient, he's playing the doctor,
a lecherous physician from Hove named Arthur Wicksteed.
Though the play is little more than a souffle,
it's still ironic that, within a month of Nixon's burial, Hallahan's
character, speaking through a wind tunnel of two decades, tells us
that we should always do what we want. Though it's bad to
live with guilt for what we've done, he suggests, think how much
worse it is to live with regret for what we haven't done.
"Whatever right or wrong is, he whose lust lasts, lasts longest."
Bennett, of course, penned this before AIDS
roared across the landscape, and in some ways he foreshadowed the
celebratory attitude toward unbridled greed that became associated
with the '80s. The mistake in watching this superbly executed
revival of a play that dwells so incessantly on men losing their
trousers and the size of women's breasts is to assume that it's as
trivial as its obsessions. It is indeed anachronistic piffle, but it
also reflects a state of mind and, like any signpost of where we've
come from, gives occasion to ponder where we're going.
Habeas Corpus is set in a partly industrial,
partly tourist town adjoining the English Channel, scenes of which
are painted on horizontally sliding flats, designed by Deborah
Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio. It's significant that Bennett chooses
suburbia for his setting, for as the play leaps across the Atlantic
Ocean to American shores, the lust that Bennett celebrates (and the
repression he bemoans) isn't just for and about urban freethinkers.
Rather, it reaches straight for the hearts of people living in
places like Covina and Anaheim — the same people who became addicted
to Monty Python and Benny Hill.
Raymond and Vernacchio have also designed a
kaleidoscope of colors on the floor that captures the tail end of
the "All You Need Is Love" era. In the midst of this collage stands
a "hoover" (vacuum cleaner), and with this image, the play opens.
Our narrator is a housekeeper named Mrs. Swabb (a
spry Marian Mercer), who introduces us to the Wicksteeds. There's
the aforementioned Arthur; his dowdy wife, Muriel (Jennifer Bassey);
and their gormless, hypochondriac son, Dennis (Gregory Cooke), who
lumbers about the stage with toilet paper wadded in his front pocket
for his perennially running nose. "But I've got piles," he complains
to the voluptuous Felicity Rumpers (Anna Gunn) when she suggests
that they share a romantic picnic in the open air.
Finally, there's spinster Constance (Nancy
Lenehan), whose passion to have sizable breasts has become a kind of
religious calling. She is courted by a man of the cloth in whom she
has absolutely no interest—a man to whom she has been engaged for 10
years and whose virtue is stained only by his penchant for gazing up
other women's skirts. Constance's fiance is, not surprisingly, named
Canon Throbbing (Cotter Smith).
Costumer Todd Roehrman dresses several of them in
droopy cardigans and pullovers, stretched by wear, that not only
define the regional attire, but provide a satire of dowdiness every
bit as sparkling as the language.
The whole affair is directed with panache by
Kristoffer Tabori. The souffle would fall were just one performer
out of rhythm or spirit. But that doesn't happen — all the more
impressive since this company rotates roles, and no two performances
will boast the same cast. It suggests that Tabori has firmly
entrenched the pacing and the style, after which he simply trusts
his excellent company.
Arthur, being a doctor, tells us how keenly he's
aware of death's inevitability and, consequently, the futility of
his profession. Mrs. Swabb: "The smoothest cheek will wrinkle, the
proudest breast will fall . . . death will claim us all." It is both
the death and the futility by which he rationalizes his
philandering, and he spends a great deal of effort romancing young
Arthur and son wind up competing for her
affections. Felicity leaves the doctor waiting alone on the Brighton
pier in the pouring rain, for she is far more attracted to his
bent-twig boy. Actually, it's not Dennis that wins her heart, but
his doom, for he appears to have only three months to live because
of an affliction called "Brett's Palsy." Of such stuff romanticism
is built. That's the view, at least, in the era before feminism
supposedly enlightened us all.
When Felicity realizes that Dennis may not
have Brett's Palsy, and that she's facing the prospect of living
with the lout for a good 50 years, she backs into the wall,
boggle-eyed, emitting a primal scream.
Meanwhile, a traveling tit salesman (for lack of
a better description) named Mr. Shanks (Andrew Bloch), carrying a
pair of plastic strap-on breasts, mistakes the well-endowed and
long-ignored Mrs. Wicksteed for his intended client, Constance.
Diligently professional, he feels what he presumes to be his product
as it's worn by Mrs. W. Unaware that he's groping flesh,
Shanks arouses a bliss in her that's reflected in Bassey's face and
body with pristinely comic eloquence.
When Constance finally gets to wear the
apparatus, suddenly the president of the British Medical
Association, a model of moral rectitude and vengeance named Sir
Percy Shorter (Hamilton Camp), starts lusting after her or, at
least, after her artificially inflated chest.
Felicity's aristocratic' mother, Lady Rumpers
(Audra Lindley), sees this motley assemblage as a metaphor for the
British Empire's decline, but she, too, has moral indiscretions in
her history. Everyone does. That's the point. So stop repressing
them and live before you die. If only it were so simple.
There's a running motif in Habeas Corpus
that speaks to people who, a generation ago, hadn't quite absorbed
the shock that society was abandoning the moral illusions of the
'50s. Partly delighted, partly befuddled characters say, 'This must
be what they mean by the permissive society." The line contains all
the confusion and hope of an era that tried to promise us that, if
we just took whatever we wanted, somehow we would be set free.
BackStage West: CRITIC'S PICK
by Bob Stevens
The Matrix Theatre Company has followed up its critical and audience
success The Tavern with a British farce about the seven-year
itch and various ways lo scratch it. Alan Bennett wrote this madcap
comedy full of the usual mistaken identities, disrobed young ladies,
men without trousers, and a lovely set of "falsies." Kristofiei
Tabori has directed the frantic and frenetic proceedings to
perfection. The timing is precise and the laughs are constant.
The cast is an amazing assembly of talent. As
with the The Tavern, every role is double-cast, and it's
amazing to see what two different performers can do with the same
material. I'addi Edwards and Marian Mercer both essay the role of
Mrs. Swabb, maid, busybody, "Fate," and narrator. Nan Martin makes
an imperious Lady Rumpers, majestically striding the stage in her
pith helmet. Audra Lindley brings a more genteel graciousness to the
character but doesn't lose her spine of steel. Kaillin Hopkins and
Anna Gunn both make lovely young objects of lust and affection as
Felicity, an innocent yet experienced lady of the world. Shirley
Knight is an extra-special delight as the neglected wife whose body
awakens to another man's touch. Charles Hallahan and Robert Foxworth
both command the stage as the lusty Dr. Wicksteed. Nancy Lenehan
delivers a comic gem as the flat-chested Connie, who finds new life
in a cellulose enhancement. Hamilton Camp struts around marvelously
as the short Sir Percy Shorter. Cotter Smith and Alastair Duncan
make randy dandies as Canon Throbbing.
Design efforts are well-handled by Deborah Raymond and
Dorian Vernacchio's pop art set, Paulie Jenkins' masterful lighting, Todd
Roehrman's right-on costumes, and Matthew Beville's great sound design.
Habeas Corpus should have bodies filling the theatre and rolling in
the aisles for a long time to come.
by Hoyt Hilsman
Alan Bennett's farce is revived in a sparkling
production with Kristoffer Tabori directing a knockout cast that
delivers not only the laughs, but also the nuances of the British
The play is a modern Restoration comedy that tracks the
domestic adventures of physician Arthur Wicksteed (Robert Fox-worth), his
wile Muriel (Shirley Knight), his son Dennis (JD Cullum) and his spinster
sister Constance (Nancy Lenehan).
In their own way, each of these characters searches for
love, or rather lust.
Arthur has his eye on the comely Felicity Rumpers (Kaiilin
Hopkins), who has her eye (for quite different reasons) on Dennis. Muriel
is dreaming of former sweetheart Sir Percy Shorter (Hamilton Camp), the
diminutive president of the British Medical Assn.
Constance is also being pursued by the earnest and
bumbling Canon Throbbing (Alastair Duncan), as well as by an itinerant
salesman of breast enhancement appliances, Mr. Shanks (Andrew Robinson).
Add the wisecracking housekeeper Mrs. Swabb (Paddi
Edwards), the highborn eccentric Lady Rumpers (Nan Martin), a suicidal
patient (Charles Berendt), and you have a festive mix.
Farce is the most challenging theatrical form, and the
cast and director Tabori keep it clicking.
Knight is terrific as the lonesome British matron,
pining over chance compliments offered decades ago. Cullum and Hopkins are
a winning combination as one of several odd couplings in the piece, as are
Lenehan and Duncan.
Edwards is marvelous in a crucial role weaving the
fast-moving scenes together. Martin, Camp, Robinson and Berendt also turn
in excellent performances.
As a physician weary of the world but still lusting for
the flesh, Foxworth brings a dimension to the lead character that conveys
much of the deeper spirit of the piece.
The play is double-cast, with these actors rotating
roles with a another talented group of performers.
Director Tabori deserves special praise not only for
his skillful and insightful handling of the production, but also for
double directing duties.
Kudos also to set designers Deborah Raymond and Dorian
Vernacchio for imaginative, artistic set, to composer Ross Levinson, sound
designer Matthew Seville and costume designer Todd Roehman.
"Habeas: A Good Mix of Talent"
by Philip Brandes, Special to the Times
Since each performance of Alan Bennett's "Habeas
Corpus" at the Matrix Theatre features a different mix of actors
drawn from the production's dual casts, there's no way to know in
advance which of the alternates might appear in any given role.
Not to worry, though. Any loss in predictability is
more than offset by the opportunity to see first-rate performers who
couldn't commit to stage work in a small house without the schedule
flexibility that allows them to pursue other projects during the run.
The implicit concession to the reality of live
theater's back-seat status to film and television may rankle stage
purists, but the benefits of Matrix producer Joe Stern's double-casting
strategy were obvious in the impressive range of talent arrayed for the
two performances reviewed last weekend.
Within the tight constraints of Bennett's energetic
farce (which combines the sophisticated wit of "The Importance of Being
Earnest" with the raunchy burlesque of "The Benny Hill Show"), the
differences between casts are primarily in interpretive spin rather than
quality of performance. The widest variations are in Bennett's bastions of
upper-middle-class hypocrisy, the philandering Dr. Wicksteed and his
long-Suffering wife, Muriel. As the not-so-good doctor who "couldn't heal
a shoe," Charles Hallahan flounders hopelessly in his own romantic
delusions, while Robert Foxworth is more the self-aware realist (though
just as hilariously enslaved to his raging hormones).
Shirley Knight plays Muriel as a clueless, bewildered
matron—the funniest moment in the production is her round-eyed
astonishment (and delight) when she's mistakenly "adjusted" by a salesman
(Andrew Robinson or Andrew Bloch) who thinks she's wearing his
bust-enlargement product; in contrast, Jennifer Bassey's Muriel is sharper
and feistier, but less endearingly befuddled. Contributing to the
inevitable complications are their hypochondriac son (equally nerdy JD
Cullum and Gregory Cooke) and the seductive gold digger (outrageous
Kaitlin Hopkins or enigmatic Anna Gunn) who snares him; spinster Aunt
Constance (Nancy Lenehan in both reviewed performances) and the lecherous
priest (effete Alastair Duncan or aggressive Cotter Smith) who urges her
to join him in "the forefront of Anglican sexuality"; rival doctor Sir
Percy Shorter (wiry Hamilton Camp or aloof Charles Berendt); and the
meddlesome commentator-maid (pushy, mischievous Paddi Edwards or twinkly,
demented Marian Mercer).
Qualitative differences in performance are minimal,
though Nan Martin is a more imperious presence than Audra Lindley as the
Lady Bracknell-ish aristocratic snob, and Berendt brings more comic lunacy
to his suicidal patient than does Brian Mallon.
Credit director Kristoffer Tabori for the continuity
his precision staging brings to the various casts, and for frenetic pacing
appropriate to Bennett's verbal acrobatics. He hasn't solved the
problematic final 15 minutes, however, in which the play seems perpetually
stuck on the verge of ending.
Successful production embellishments include colorful
Hockneyesque painted backdrops (by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio)
in place of the scripted bare stage, and a score by Ross .Levinson setting
Bennett's occasional spoken poems to music.
Both "Habeas Corpus" and the preceding Matrix
production of "The Tavern" have been smart choices—the kind of plot-driven
comedies that can easily incorporate the performance variations inherent
in the "plug-and-play" casting concept. Character-based dramas like "King
Lear" or "Death of a Salesman," however, might pose a greater challenge.
We'll just have to wait and see.