Chamber's "Unnecessary Farce" is the stage equivalent of a cream puff
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre kicked off its 2019-20 season this past weekend with a light and silly comedy designed to fit the mood of audiences in the last balmy weeks of summer. Directed by Ryan Schabach and filled with small town Wisco kitsch and familiar Milwaukee faces, this production of "Unnecessary Farce" is the Wisconsin State Fair cream puff of drama.
Like any sweet confection, farce has a recipe, and playwright/Broadway actor Paul Slade Smith must know it by heart because his version has been produced almost 300 times across the country.
First, you need a lot of doors for the cast to repeatedly enter and exit through. These doors must lock and slam while actors fumble with them, hide behind them and whack people in the head with them. A lot of farces have six doors. "Unnecessary" has eight! Scenic designer Martin McClendon actually color codes the doors for his set, delineating the bathrooms, closets, the hotel rooms' entrance and back-to-back doors of two adjoining suites, so at least the audience can keep track of where everyone is.
McClendon also provides the essential bouncy beds that can be hidden behind, walked over and used for either genuine hanky-panky or many other ridiculous couples' situations that look like two people pitching woo. To these doors and beds, add a cast of wacky, two-dimensional characters who are apt to panic in high pressure situations by either looking for a place to hide or disrobing on the spot. Shake and stir. Chaos will surely ensue.
A sweet nothing
Like the quintessential cream puff, "Unnecessary Farce" has an airy, fragile frame that barely holds together a sickly sweet, completely insubstantial and definitely oversized midsection.
The set-up for the show, delivered to the audience in a clear plastic clamshell of exposition right from the start, is a stake-out by the Sheboygan police department's least competent cops: the mousy and claustrophobic – but cheerful – rookie Billie Dwyer (Rachael Zientek) and the awkward new guy trying to make good, Eric Sheridan (Ben Yela). Through earnest enthusiasm rather than skill, the pair sets up a sting operation in the adjoining hotel room to catch the small town's mayor (Jonathan Gillard Daly) in an embezzling scheme. To coax out the mayor's confession, the bumbling officers have enlisted the help of an attractive CPA (Amber Smith) who has the hots for the good guy and has a lot of trouble keeping her clothes on throughout the play. Unfortunately Smith works a little too hard at being a sex kitten and doesn't raise the stakes much with all her reveals.
Although the big-as-your-head cream puff is an exaggerated dessert, even by State Fair standards, its improbability is also part of its allure. That same fascination holds for our story's villain: an assassin for the Scottish mafia, known as "the clan with a C." The dreaded Scot, who is actually named Todd, not only suits up in a full kilt and feather bonnet before he kills his mark, he also serenades the doomed soul with a jig on his matching plaid bagpipes. As the bonny, bonny murderer, Rick Pendzich is a sight to behold (costume designer Aliceson Hackett-Rubel really went all out). His steely resolve and increasingly incomprehensible brogue work with his snazzy highland garb to make him epically ridiculous, and the only running joke that gets funnier as the play progresses. Another example of delightful excess includes casting powerhouse actors Daly and Jenny Wanasek in silly, minor roles.
A mushy middle
The plot is thin, the comedy is broad and the show goes on for about 20 minutes too long – which can be attributed to both soggy writing and a pace that's more leisurely than breakneck. Director Ryan Shabach pulls out every slapstick trick in the book, adding bits of physical comedy to such simple tasks as answering the phone and buttoning up a shirt. But even the acrobatic routines that Zientek undertakes, hopping from bed to closet to door and back while bound and gagged with Scottish tartan, still don't make this sweet treat rise like it should.
The last bite
Cream puff gobblers might be giddy at first bite, but by the end of their thousand calorie splurge, they are likely overcome with other, less pleasant feelings. Fortunately, "Unnecessary Farce" doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth, but you probably won't be going back for seconds.
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