The dog days of summer have done nothing to slow down Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company, currently in the midst of a record-breaking season.
On the heels of the hit run of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” CTC’s theater makers continue to make play while the sun shines, from the recently purchased black box theater out to the banks of the Saugatucket River. A famous pair of star-crossed lovers will be part of free performances every Wednesday and Sunday in August as part of an exciting new production of “Romeo and Juliet” on the outdoor patio.
Meanwhile, the company invites theatergoers indoors for a four-week run of “Unnecessary Farce” by Paul Slade Smith.
It is to CTC’s annual summer farce that I attribute a newfound appreciation for this ruthless, but rewarding, theatrical form. Dramatist John Mortimer once observed that “farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions a minute.” Indeed, with rigid rules and their death-defying execution on stage, farce o’erleaps tragedy in its difficulty – especially because the conventions require the actors to make it look easy.
The company’s program notes often strike a defensive tone about staging a play whose raison d’être is laughter alone, and this production is no exception. But what is the shame in allowing CTC’s players to reduce you to giggling fits with outrageously absurd comedy? None. The more convoluted the plot, the more ridiculous the characters, the better.
In the second part of “Unnecessary Farce,” a character watching the action in the neighboring motel room on a television set remarks, “people running in and out of rooms taking their clothes off – that hardly passes for a plot!” There’s not really a whole lot more to Paul Slade Smith’s contemporary farce than that, but it is enough to sustain the relentless gags, pratfalls and one-liners for a brisk and satisfying show, which clocks in at less than two hours with intermission.
The play’s setup is a sting operation in a budget motel in which two rookie police officers work with a municipal accountant to ensnare the mayor they suspect of embezzling millions. Once this comic juggernaut is put into gear, the action spins out to new levels of absurdity involving door slamming, lovemaking, and – naturally – the appearance of the Scottish mafia (the infamous Scottish “Clan with a c”).
Smith’s nonsensical comedy premiered in 2006 and has since been staged across the country and around the world. The play’s success is likely drawn from the well-calibrated balance of classic farce with a contemporary American edge, as much as the well-drawn characters. Smith, an acclaimed performer and playwright, gives the actors plenty to chew on (including donuts).
With director Rebecca Magnotta at the helm, CTC’s cast of seven veers closer and closer to theatrical anarchy at a reckless pace. Magnotta’s direction keeps one foot on the clutch and one on the gas pedal, finding an effective balance between door-slamming chaos and the carefully executed choreography that keeps the farce’s comedy from stalling.
As the modern-day Keystone Kops somehow entrusted to carry out the sting on the corrupt mayor, Christine Cauchon and Jake Clarke turn in delightfully silly performances as officers Billie Dwyer and Eric Sheridan. Both performers get plenty of mileage out of parodying tropes of the buddy cop genre.
The magnificent Cauchon proves herself as adept at the verbal comedy as the physical slapstick, hog-tied and hopping in and out of closets while also bringing down the house with a show-stopping, tongue-twister monologue. But Cauchon’s funniest moments may be her scene-stealing reactions while watching the action in the neighboring room on television, chomping on a donut.
Clarke is endearing, both with Sheridan’s hapless effort to do real police work and in his tongue-tied love interest in the accountant Karen Brown, played by Emily Carter. Carter offers a sharp and sassy performance at the center of the drama, enjoying great chemistry with Clarke and often providing an alternating one-performer double act – both as comedian and straight actor.
Ryan Sekac’s appearance as the menacing mafia enforcer Todd provides a major payoff. With a spot-on brogue (in his first Scottish character at CTC since Macduff in 2016), Sekac’s tour-de-force turn as Todd ups the ante on the farce’s ridiculous action, setting off an escalating cavalcade of mistaken identities, physical gags and plot twists as the play races to the finish line.
Daniel Greene gives amply in his role of the conflicted Agent Frank. Terry Simpson and Sandy Cerel are charming and funny as Mayor Meekly and his wife, wandering in and out of the action at all the wrong times. More than any other theatrical genre, farce is dependent on the actors to translate the play’s pent-up potential into kinetic energy for a live audience. Magnotta’s troupe accomplishes this with quirky characterization and a nimble touch, keeping the action accelerating and comedy buoyant.
Design elements are efficient and facilitate the hyperactive twists and turns well. The set, an angled, eight-door design by Christopher Simpson, supports the play’s comic action, although a couple of doors will likely require some fine tuning to keep the slamming crisp. Interior décor conveys the familiar drab interiors of economy motel lodging. Costumer Witt Tarantino for the most part mirrors the banal aesthetic, and has the most fun with the buddy cop leitmotiv – and, of course, Todd’s tartan and kilt.
The only escape from this preposterous comedy is laughter. One clue that a farce is succeeding is when the actors’ prime the audience so that they are able to get laughs between the punch lines as much as on them. CTC’s “Unnecessary Farce” achieves this payoff at countless points with hard-earned laughs freely given.
The madcap, laugh-a-minute show earned an appreciative standing ovation at the end of the first preview show. And if the fun that audiences are having at CTC so far this summer is any indication, it won’t be the last.
For more information on tickets and showtimes, visit contemporarytheater
company.com and see the Happenings listings on Page C2 of this week’s edition.