Play selection for Playhouse's Mainstage Theatre is like that cardigan that the grandkids make fun of. Though it's comfortable, warm, and otherwise familiar, you don't notice the holes in the elbows, the missing button, or the stains on the collar. But your friends do. That's what these farces, sitting room dramas, whodunits, and comedies of manners feel like, serviceable but a little frayed. This in spite of the wonderful costumes of Donna Fritsche, the high priestess of the hem and pleat, which tailor the setting to the particular era. It may not be your cup of tea but it is the Mainstage's shtick of choice, God bless them.
Sometimes the productions work, sometimes they don't. To paraphrase what Dodger fans say about Manny Ramirez, it's just the Mainstage being the Mainstage. Rarely are they maddening. Until now.
In No Sex Please, We're British!, directed by Robert Craig for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, a young English bride orders Scandinavian glassware and ends up with pornography. When it was first staged in 1971 it might have been funny: there was no easy, 24/7 Internet to access the stuff, it came wrapped in brown paper, so I've heard. Now, though, access and delivery (broadband and PayPal) are no big deal. Farce-wise, it would have been better to have had the woman order online porn and get something for the kitchen from IKEA instead.
Not only is the script dated, the direction was red zone tachometer and the best that could be said for the ensemble effort was that it was aerobic and enthusiastic, like an exercise video. It's not from a lack of sincere effort, for there does appear to have been a design to the production. It's just that it was, in retrospect, de trop.
Set in England, the story features a newlywed couple, police, auditors, bank managers and clerks, a couple of go-go girls, and a mother-in-law who got her groove on. It involves mistaken identity, slamming doors, and double entendres. That fact that the characters are British -- low key, understated British -- was supposed to make these elements funny. It didn't. From the start, the production felt very American, a la John Belushi and John Candy: brash, obnoxious, and manic.
It's farce that's honored more in the breach than the observance. The farcical parts come across more as a stentorian tempest in a teapot hissy fit than something funny. The pre-applause moment of silence at the break and the final curtain was deafening because the action that preceded it was so cacophonic.
The production felt rushed, as if some enchanted carriage was going to turn into a pumpkin by ten thirty and so everything had to be done at a frenzied pace, which in turn elicited sped-up dialogue, which made the plot twists and accompanying verbal banter undigestable. Pacing was the problem. Instead of a steady accumulation of humorous complications, everything got rammed together, like Christmas shoppers on an escalator at Harrods that suddenly ground to a halt. The production didn't offer the audience time to catch its collective breath, notice if not relish the sexual innuendos and absurd situations that littered the script and the actors that enacted them. Instead, the directorial foot seems to have gunned the accelerator to do donuts in the parking lot.
The performances you savored were those by characters of either a certain age or else drugged. Christi Reinbolt Lunch's Eleanor Hunter, the mother of Gregory's Wickes's lead, Peter, and Scott T. Finn's Mr. Needham, the bank auditor, were the lighthouses against the histrionic storm of blustery blather and frenetic haplessness. Of the maelstrom-paced actors, two had the right tempo: the house-call call-girls, Susan (Tracey Wiltse) and Barbara (Nicole Odell).
Performances are 8pm, Fri. & Sat, 2pm, Sun. The show runs until July 17. Tickets are $12-22. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info call 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.