Nothing much happens in most Mike Leigh plays; the people that nothing happens to matter more to this sharp-eared but sympathetic observer of humanity and its idiosyncrasies. Leigh’s 1988 play “Smelling a Rat,” his sly deconstruction of a bedroom farce, could be seen as a theatrical manifesto of sorts. Here he takes a classic setup — one room, five characters, six closets — and blithely fails to allow the expected comic mayhem to ensue. He ostentatiously brings onstage a gun and never allows it to go off. For Leigh the artifices of entertainment are dull; the clumsy workings of actual life are fascinating.
His rigorously anti-dramatic rhythms may glaze the eyes of some, but audiences who share Leigh’s tastes will find Scott Elliott’s production of “Smelling a Rat” to be a savory pleasure. It marks a happy return to form for Elliott’s New Group, which garnered acclaim for prior productions of Leigh’s “Ecstasy” and “Goose-Pimples” but has struggled to match its early successes in recent seasons.
The play takes place in an oppressively cute bedroom. Pink and mauve are the dominant colors of Kevin Price’s meticulously detailed set. Little bows abound. An army of stuffed animals, supported by a battalion of puffy pillows, is marshaled on the bedspread. The room suggests plenty about the marriage of its inhabitants, one of whom — Rex Weasel (Terence Rigby), an exterminator by trade — arrives home early from a beach vacation in a manifestly terrible mood. (The stuffed animals are the first to be terrorized.)
Surprised by the sound of voices, Rex ducks into a closet. Enter Vic Maggott (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his wife Charmaine (Gillian Foss), a little tipsy and a little gassy after a Boxing Day dinner at a relative’s house. (In addition to being a faux farce, “Smelling a Rat” is also a latter-day riff on “A Christmas Carol.”) Vic has been asked by a fellow employee to check up on the apartment while Weasel is out of town.
While snooping around the bedroom, and cheerily tearing down the characters of the big boss and his wife, Vic and Charmaine are in turn surprised by voices. Into the closets they go, to listen while Rex’s embittered son Rock (Eddie Kaye Thomas) makes spasmodic attempts to seduce his ditzy companion Melanie-Jane (Michelle Williams).
Leigh doesn’t, in fact, utterly drain the farcical possibilities from this potent comic situation. The naturally hysterical Melanie-Jane’s discovery of Vic is duly explosive, and it’s topped by the first-act curtain. But it’s what happens in between the explosions that matters most. Leigh’s great gift is for naturalistic dialogue that brings his characters into such sharp focus that their humanity gets under our skin even if we find their behavior tedious, tacky or distasteful. Through chatter that is both numbingly banal and strangely musical, he draws out the humor in these characters’ follies and pretensions and insecurities — but there isn’t a whiff of the patronizing about his writing.
It’s a gift that’s ideally matched here by some exquisitely fine acting. O’Byrne, seen on Broadway in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” gives a wonderfully appealing comic performance as Vic, a classic “Monty Python” goofball with a propensity to sprinkle his speech with highfalutin’ verbiage. (The word “inasmuch” he finds suitable for all linguistic purposes.) Foss’ performance as Charmaine is an absolute marvel: It’s so flawlessly detailed that the line between acting and being seems to have been erased. This couple’s reaction to their mortifying predicament — their cajoling attempts to gloss over their faux pas with flattering appeals to the boss’s son and then the boss — is wincingly funny.
Williams and Thomas, young actors who’ve done time on the WB network (she in “Dawson’s Creek,” he in “Off Centre”), are not equally at ease in their interplay. Williams’ performance is often hilarious (and so’s her scary ’80s outfit, with monster shoulder pads and gold heels, courtesy of costume designer Eric Becker), but it’s also a bit fussy, and pitched at too high a level. Thomas, whose sullen character is the most disturbed and disturbing onstage, is perhaps too ostentatiously brooding.
But for the most part, Elliott and all the actors, including the excellent Rigby as the roaringly nasty bully Weasel, find the right, artfully awkward rhythms for Leigh’s dialogue. Exasperation with its meandering pace may come and go, but the play’s appeal eventually sneaks up on you and holds on tight. And the quirky pathos of its characters lingers indefinitely, much in the way an accidentally overheard conversation among strangers may tickle you for days.