Steve Thompson’s new comedy fictionalizes a real-life U.S. federal case brought by the Monty Python troupe against American net ABC in 1975. The Brit comedians were unhappy about cuts to their programs, ostensibly to make room for ads but clearly intended to clean up the sexual and scatological references. After a creaky start, Thompson (“Sherlock,” “Doctor Who”) works things into an enjoyable comic froth, and lands some strong points about artistic freedom and Yank/Brit cultural differences. Tightened up, this could have U.K. commercial legs, though whether American auds would be as amused is an open question.
Francis O’Connor’s set aims to create a knowing, in-jokey context: Action is framed is if in a vintage TV set, and there are multiple visual references to Python iconography. But this self-consciousness doesn’t justify the lumbering old-fashionedness of early expositional scenes setting up Michael Palin (Harry Hadden-Paton), Terry Gilliam (Sam Alexander) and their descent on ABC with publicist Nancy (Charity Wakefield) and slick lawyer Osterberg (Clive Rowe) in tow. One would have hoped that a play that so celebrates edginess could have found a snappier way to convey this information.
But once Edward Hall’s production gets wound up, it starts to fly. Alexander and particularly Hadden-Paton manage the playing of well-known personalities remarkably well. Thompson has found funny, smart ways to illustrate their very different temperaments: Alexander’s Gilliam arrives at the first meeting with ABC absurdly dressed as a costume-party British patriot, while Hadden-Paton is superb at conveying Palin’s cringing Englishness, which finally cracks in a hilarious extended exchange in which he and Giliam vainly try to explain what’s funny about dancing Queen Victorias and naked Indian slave boys to utterly po-faced studio exec Franklin (Issy Von Randwyck).
The comic high point comes at the top of the second act, thanks to Matthew Marsh’s bone-dry portrayal of federal judge Lasker. (“I got to say it’s unusual, fellas,” he deadpans to Palin and Gilliam, “trying to get your show taken off the biggest network in America.”) The writing is also at its cleverest here. Python fans will be satisfied that we finally get a long stretch of a famous sketch (the one about “very expensive gaiters”), but the meta-joke is that Palin and Gilliam are being asked to re-enact it under conditions that virtually strip it of humor.
While Thompson’s sympathies obviously and unapologetically lie with the Pythons here, he has devoted some energy to understanding the other position. The cuts are clearly presented as prudish censorship that presages the high moral ground claimed by today’s far right. But ABC exec Myers (Joseph May) argues Britain is crippled by its own liberalism: “You’ve made dissent into the national language. Anyone can say what they want in front of millions of viewers… America has values that we’re willing to defend. You pawned yours.”
The point sure to hit hardest with the Hampstead’s chattering-class demographic is the play’s nostalgic investment in the 1970s-era BBC as a haven for play and creativity that has in the meantime (it’s implied) been overtaken by an American corporate mentality.
Production values are generally strong, though there’s some unevenness in casting and acting. Wakefield overplays the melodrama when the situation gets fraught, and while Clive Rowe is never less than a charismatic onstage force, his performance seems always about to burst the seams of his straitlaced character.
Great yuks, some smart ideas, and a reminder of a fascinating moment in the globalization of comedy: This is a few nips and tucks away from being a smart commercial package.