Dinner theater is the most likely destination for “Take a Chance on Me,” the English comedy that isn’t, you may be pleased to discover, yet another exercise in karaoke Abba. Taking the world of speed dating as his starting point, scribe Roger Hall spends rather more time than necessary — the play runs a far from fleet 2½ hours — charting the romantic travails of six lovesick Londoners, alongside two comperes of sorts, the “other woman” (Gwyneth Strong) and “other man” (Alan Francis), whose running commentary could most benevolently be described as Marivaux lite.
Those two are along to plug narrative gaps, generate suspense (by the end of act one, we’re told as if the tension were absolutely unbearable, only one of the sextet under scrutiny has found love), and play multiple roles themselves, which both actors do with the likable aplomb that extends across director Justin Greene’s entire cast. If the play itself seems quaint — some might say trivial — it’s the sort of show one could imagine its characters enjoying.
Americans might actually enjoy Hall’s cross-section of the lovelorn, if only to gauge the ways in which such generic approaches to playwriting differ in the U.K. I’m not sure, for instance, that Brian (played by Joe McGann, brother of “Mourning Becomes Electra’s” Paul McGann), the “bit o’ rough” plumber — he prefers to call himself a “service engineer” — and football obsessive has quite so immediately identifiable an equivalent in the U.S. So recognizable a type was he at the perf caught that the jolly female English bank employee near me was in near-hysterics at his every move.
The hard-boozing Brian has been abandoned by his wife, only to find second-act solace with an escort named Desiree. While the cast maneuvers the cushions that make up Sarah-Jane McClelland’s set, the characters maneuver their own way toward romance, or not, as the case may be.
To start with, they’re enrolled at an introduction agency allowing them three minutes with each person, which seems to be the amount of time it takes divorcee Eleanor (Candida Gibbons), the hard-boiled lawyer, to have her way with a bicycle courier. (By the end, Eleanor has achieved what looks to be longer-termed success with an eye surgeon she met at a Club Med.)
Choosing somewhat slower paths toward satisfaction are widower Dan (Eric Richard) and the poshly spoken Lorraine (Georgina Hale), whose husband is dying of cancer. While Dan checks what day it is on his pill dispenser, Lorraine gets fixed up with a (literal) dummy. The bravest shot at a big date for teacher Rebecca (Helen Lederer) gets torpedoed by her children — and by her own low self-esteem. “I’m a cliche,” she says. “(That) doesn’t make it any easier.” Or make her any less a cliche.
If the characters’ tribulations are of the unexceptional sort one can find nightly on TV for free, one shouldn’t discount the charm of a company who survive even Hall’s hoariest passages. (The dreariest vignette chronicles two dates gone awry — one to the movies, the other to “Vlad the Impaler” at the Royal Albert Hall.) Patrick Pearson is especially endearing as the beleaguered Tim. But there isn’t a weak link in the cast of a play that is good-hearted without being good and would be better if it were shorter. What happened, one wonders, to speed playgoing?