It’s been a long time since Henry Fonda led the charge for herpetologists everywhere as Charles “Hopsi” Pike, the snake fancier in Preston Sturges’ classic screwball “The Lady Eve,” but students of serpents are poised for a comeback. Ahead of movie blogger’s delight “Snakes on a Plane,” up pops naive brainbox Matilda in Crispin Whittell’s new play “Clever Dick” — she’s pretty sure reptiles are her style. And that’s just the beginning of a farce that encompasses everything from nuclear physics to “National Velvet.” Sadly, Whittell is no Sturges.
The title refers to the dogged, belligerently stupid ex-private eye (suitably sweaty Corey Johnson as “Fat Man”) and the possible counter-intelligence agent he’s tailing. Latter is the real-life nuclear scientist Richard Feynman (Adrian Rawlings), who Whittell imagines has temporarily abandoned the Manhattan Project and holed himself up in a hotel south of Albuquerque on June 17, 1945.
Feynman is unhappily double-booked into a room with 18-year-old blond Matilda (Jennifer Higham), who is planning to lose her virginity to a handsome young Marine she knows as Billy (Jamie King) but who is really hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. She hides in the closet when Fat Man comes knocking and Feynman, who hasn’t slept in 58 hours and is already at his tether’s end, swiftly spirals still further toward hysteria.
By the end of the play, he’s been caught with the Marine standing compromisingly naked in front of him, the Fat Man crashing in through the ceiling and a trampolining nun arriving, in climactic fashion, over the balcony. It’s no surprise, therefore, that at one point he wails, “I’m surrounded by my fellow Americans and it feels like root canal without morphine.”
Yet the line most likely to chime with audiences is his earlier cri de coeur, “I’m experiencing this terrible feeling called confusion.” Part of that confusion is how the adroit author of the superior “Darwin in Malibu” could have gone so wrong from a similar structural starting point.
The earlier play, also given its London premiere at the Hampstead, played similar games with fact and fiction via famous names doing conversational battle, but did so with engaging warmth. Enough time was taken to establish characters that auds connected with.
Here, however, we’ve barely been introduced to the characters before events start to turn toward madness. Everyone talks their heads off, occasionally amusingly, but there’s no subtext to be interested in. As a result, although the stakes climb we don’t care enough about anyone for the mayhem to have an emotional effect.
By the end, not only have sadness and loss taken over, but every insane-seeming development is surprisingly revealed to be rooted in reality. That only contributes to the play’s secondhand feeling. It’s as if Whittell has merged two Stoppard plays: marrying the diverse fictional and factual cast list of “Travesties” with his early, exquisitely crafted one-act “After Magritte.” The latter also opens with a surreal stage picture that appears to make no sense, but an investigation by Foot of the Yard, a similarly obtuse London policeman, reveals everything to be ruthlessly logical.
Even more puzzling is the closeness of “Clever Dick” to Terry Johnson’s much-revived 1982 play (and film) “Insignificance,” which was worth the price of admission for the knockout scene featuring Marilyn Monroe in a hotel room explaining the theory of relativity to Einstein with a toy train, a torch and a balloon. Whittell has his blond on the bed explaining nuclear fission to Feynman. Whittell may be offering an oblique point about our own nuclear age, but if so, it’s not coming through.
Part of the problem rests with his decision to direct the play himself. Anther pair of hands could have pushed for at least one more stiff rewrite and might have put the accelerator down when needed to ride out weaker, expository passages or paced proceedings to allow for emotional engagement.
Nor does Whittell balance his cast. Rawlins fares best. As frantic Feynman he has the lion’s share of the dialogue, and he gives the play the nearest it has to an emotional anchor, managing to evince vulnerability alongside the physical precision, the prerequisite of farce playing.
Rawlins is skilled enough to know exactly how to build and sustain energy; the others confuse energy with effort. Higham is plodding and strained, not least in her struggle with Matilda’s accent, which distances her from her character. Like the play as a whole, she gives off earnestness, an unfortunate quality for a comedy.