Judging from the barrage of nerve-rattling guffaws, uncontrollable titters and hysterical snorts emanating from the man sitting directly behind this viewer, the producers and creators of London’s “The Play What I Wrote” need not worry that the show’s brand of humor is the kind of thing what Americans won’t get. Surely there are plenty of Yanks ready to embrace the gleefully lowbrow antics of the show’s daffy, energetic stars, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl.
Right-oh, but don’t call me Shirley.
Yes, folks, it’s that kind of a show — the kind what some will find to be inspired silliness, others tedious juvenility. To this viewer, who was driven to relocate after intermission in a state of theatrical shellshock, it was a disconcerting mixture of both, practically at the same time.
Originally devised by Foley and McColl, a British comic double-act, as a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, a more famous British comic double-act that made it big on the telly in the ’70s, the show presents these loving partners at supposed cross purposes. (The overt Morecambe and Wise references have been weeded out for U.S. consumption.)
The impish Hamish thinks he’s come to Broadway to star in his great dramatic masterpiece, “A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple” (tee hee). But Sean, a deceptively regular-looking bloke with rubber limbs, has secretly made a deal with bigshot producer Mike Tickles (yock) to substitute the team’s music-hall schtick for Hamish’s swashbuckling epic. (Mike Nichols is, in fact, one of the show’s producers.)
The tug of war between the two finds Hamish frantically trying to proceed with his masterpiece, set in 18th century Paris (“I am France,” he dramatically intones, wrapped in a flag, a tiny Eiffel Tower atop his head, “and parts of me are revolting”), despite the fact that the announced star, Sir Ian McKellen, is nowhere to be found. Foley keeps luring him back to their more jovially puerile antics. He has coerced their cohort Arthur (Toby Jones) into joining in the ruse, promising him a chance to fulfill his great dream (actually his mum’s, described in a series of elaborate asides) to play the harmonica on Broadway.
But such a sober description doesn’t come close to evoking the evening’s ingratiating, self-consciously idiotic spirit. There are more bad puns than you’ll find in, uh, a Mel Brooks musical, and endless sexual double entendres. Lest we forget the show’s British origins, there are the inevitable fart jokes and gay jokes, and egregiously bad drag (the squat, splendidly talented but not exactly androgynous Jones masquerading as Daryl Hannah). Most of it is so neatly stitched together by the performers (and co-author Eddie Braben, an actual vet of Morecambe and Wise shows), and dependent on their exuberant, buffoonish delivery, that it’s impossible to give coherent examples. But here’s a representative bit of shtick, from a restaurant scene: “What are you doing?” “Waiting.” “Why are you waiting?” “I’m a waiter.” “Why don’t you serve us?” “I’m a dumb waiter.”
The physical humor is equally low-down, and similarly derived from routines that might be called either classic or moldy (someone gets a pie in the face). Foley does a lot of silly walks, frugging his way off and onstage for no apparent reason. McColl, possessed of a naturally funny mug, with bug eyes and buggier ears, wears an endearing look of beatific stupefaction for half of the evening, a piteously mournful one at other times, when he succumbs to fits of despair at the thought that it’s only Sean who’s the funny one. (Arthur tells him his specialty is “the most sophisticated laugh of all. The inaudible laugh.”) They all sing and dance, badly of course, and close act one with an indescribable extravaganza featuring massive Carmen Miranda headdresses. Ask not why.
Act two brings the show’s crowning bit of japery. Each show features a “mystery guest,” a celebrity of some renown. Performers in the London production have run the gamut from Ralph Fiennes to Jerry Hall to Sting to Ewan McGregor to — whoops! — Sir Ian himself. Nathan Lane and Liam Neeson have already capered across the Lyceum stage in French Revolutionary drag.
At the reviewed performance, Kevin Kline did the honors, or had them done unto him. “I’ve been wearing your underwear for years,” Sean effuses. Whipping out a pair, he adds, “In fact, it’s time you had them back.” (Meanwhile, Arthur, who thinks he’s supposed to play Kevin Kline, comes on as Patsy Cline.) Kline’s game mock-seriousness is pretty endearing, even if, overall, the gimmick might actually work better with a less assured stage performer. But Kline’s resume does occasion some good gags. When asked how he’s doing, career-wise, Kline pompously says, “I’ve had an Oscar and two Tonys.” “Your private life is your own affair,” Sean retorts.
The mystery guest takes the lead role, the Conte de Toblerone, in Hamish’s play, which is set in the dungeon of the Bastille. The text bears a suspicious resemblance to the rest of the evening’s shtick (“Do you pine for her?” “No, I’m a deciduous man myself”), and also includes a woolly dance number that finds the skeletons of Alice Power’s aptly cheesy set joining in the can-can. It evaporates after a ghastly mishap with the guillotine, and the show concludes on a pseudo-poignant note, with Sean finally convincing his partner that it’s the team what’s really funny, not just one of its members.
I almost forgot the best joke. Listed as director in the program is noted Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh. The juxtaposition is hard to fathom, although it confirms one’s vague perceptions that highbrow Brits can have surprisingly lowbrow comic tastes. The idea is somehow absurdly appealing: One imagines Branagh wearing a fake Groucho nose throughout the rehearsal period. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get his genres crossed, and start playing Richard III with a hump that moves from left to right.