Successful farce doesn’t demand an ingenious or even a logical premise (though having one doesn’t hurt). It does require a group of characters in strong conflict, confined together in close quarters under pressing and increasing need. Laguna Playhouse’s world preeming production of “The Verdi Girls,” commissioned from Irish playwright Bernard Farrell, offers a scenario that’s inane and poorly worked out, while the staging garners few laughs, or much mirth at all, for that matter.
Start with Dwight Richard Odle’s brilliantly appointed set, a luxury suite on a Milan hotel’s fifth floor, detailed down to the last chocolate on a pillow. It’s gorgeous but not conducive to comedy, its floor plan so wide and uncluttered that characters have ample room to avoid collisions and each other, and so deep that the slapstick balcony action seems to be played in the next county.
The occasion is the annual convocation of six friends for the Milanese gala Verdi Weekend, whose only deadline is the return flight on Sunday or Monday, hardly the kind of ticking clock felt beneath classic farce. Recently widowed Linda (Elyse Mirto) is back, though still grieving for husband Steve, the group’s Jay Gatsby figure and perennial winner of the “Verdi Quiz.” On the bright side, his demise leaves the door open for always-a-bridesmaid Pete (Bo Foxworth).
Much is made of the competition, though the cast seem an unlikely set of Verdi aficionados, and so sloppy are play’s details that we can’t tell whether it’s a big civic event (it seems to attract international contestants and a large interested audience) or the rinky-dink brainchild of sole quizmeister Oliver (Gregory North), a stuffed-shirt Brit with a mother obsession and foot fetish. For whatever reason, Pete is positively pathological about copping the crummy tin trophy, though he will have to defeat newcomer Breda (Katharine McEwan) and stereotyped, watsa-matta-fo’-you hotel dick Mario (Vasili Bogazianos).
An equally time-honored tradition among this group involves walking from balcony to balcony using ironing boards as bridges. A true farceur — an Ayckbourn, say — would have created a need for the characters to attempt such terrifying stunts rather than make them the result of inebriation or ego. In any case, the fifth or sixth or seventh time the walk is discussed, reminisced or attempted with the cast screaming upstage center, no theater seat is deep enough to accommodate spectator cringing.
Screaming: There’s a lot of it, and seeing it as an analogy to opera doesn’t make it easier to take. Evidently subscribing to the “louder, faster, funnier” theory, helmer Andrew Barnicle has the cast start at an energy level of 11 on a scale of one to 10, leaving scant room for growth, although some do make it to 12 by weekend’s end.
The approach blots out whatever character subtlety Farrell may have intended. For example, the perky patter and petting of Pete and Patricia (Traci L. Crouch) signals within 10 seconds that this marriage is in deep trouble, and so it proves.
Oliver’s disabled mother (Patricia Cullen) blows an air horn, and Mario keeps (almost) knocking objects over, but as dispiriting as the attempts at hilarity are, even more so is the play’s 11th-hour shift to what one might call boulevard psychological realism, in which secrets relating to the late Steve (seen coming a mile away) are revealed. Since no effort is made early on to establish real intimacy and history among the group, nor to evoke Steve as a living force, the strains that pull them apart carry no weight, either.
Mention should be made of Bogazianos’ relative ease and restraint, which make his reappearances mostly welcome, though they largely consist of his breaking in on embracing female friends and insinuating they’re lesbians.
Time and again when confronted with mama’s pranks, Oliver wistfully — and in this context, hopefully — murmurs, “You have to laugh.” Oh no you don’t.