David Mamet’s trifle “November” suddenly looks like a political classic compared to Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s “Yes, Prime Minister.” Recycled and updated from a U.K.TV series, this stage comedy about, yes, a British prime minister and his problems with the euro, the crashing economy and a horny foreign minister from a country called Kumranistan is being given its American premiere at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse. Really, a foreign minister demands three prostitutes before he signs off on a big deal — and that’s the play’s major crisis? Welcome to America, Jay and Lynn.
How much more entertaining is any night on MSNBC or Fox News. Characters with great names like Limbaugh and Bachmann and Palin and Weiner abound. And every day there’s another real scandal, another filibuster. One senses that Jay and Lynn might prefer the more fertile ground of America, because their British politicos here have to keep referring to life across the Atlantic to land jokes about drones, assassinations and enhanced-interrogation techniques. Even the players and controversy of the Keystone Pipeline trumps Jay and Lynn’s fictitious Kumranistan Pipeline, which will bring much-needed oil to Britain and the rest of Western Europe. If only the U.K. would join the euro and not be bothered with its affection for the pound.
Jay and Lynn drop the euro/pound controversy pretty early in act one to introduce the sex angle. It’s an improvement. Sex always is. But that the prime minister (Michael McKean) and his cabinet secretary (Dakin Matthews) and adviser-secretaries (Jefferson Mays and Tara Summers) would be in such a tizzy over booking three hookers (of different races! but all female, whew!) is just lame. Didn’t people in the White House do this for JFK all the time? And that was decades ago. Summers’ character actually phones the CIA for advice. You expect the Americans to laugh in the receiver. They don’t. Instead, she comes up with the euphemism “euro job” for what they must do to save Britain.
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McKean doesn’t do much to affect a British accent and manner. Maybe that’s why he’s the only truly vital performer on stage. You can only imagine what fun he’d be having if he got to play some vulgar American president from Texas or Florida, and be allowed to cut loose. The restraint of Lynn’s lethargic direction is stultifying. As always, Mays turns himself into a walking cartoon, and has some delicious moments as the play’s big prude. Matthews begins strong as the pompous cabinet secretary, but Jay and Lynn make the mistake of repeating the character’s longwinded, nonsensical explanation of events in act one with an equally incomprehensible and long digression in act two. Amusing the first time, very annoying the second.
Set designer Simon Higlett replicates a stunning Chequers Court on stage. But are three sound designers — Andrea J. Cox, John Leonard and Jonathan Burke — required for the show’s thunderstorm? After this night in the theater, I’ll require one of those legit hearing aids they rent in the lobby.