Been There, Done That

The latest farce presented by LTW is a bit too frantic and way too familiar

I recently heard someone dismiss Ray Cooney's farce Funny Money as Run for Your Wife 4.

In other words, Cooney, Britain's leading farceur, has stitched Funny Money together according to exactly the same pattern he has successfully employed in Run for Your Wife and its actual sequel, Caught in the Net, not to mention just about every other play he has written: That is, some entirely unremarkable Englishman gets caught up in some extraordinary circumstance of his own devising, traps himself and everyone around him in a cascade of little lies and mistaken identities, and throws around some sexual innuendo that's supposed to be titillating but really wouldn't even offend the Queen Mother.

We've seen all of this before, certainly at Live Theatre Workshop, which has produced Run for Your Wife and Caught in the Net in recent seasons, and is now lavishing its comic resources on Funny Money.

This time around, the central character is a muddling, undistinguished office drone named Henry. At a subway station, he mistakenly picks up the wrong briefcase, which turns out to be stuffed with £735,000 in used £50 notes. The bills are untraceable, and the money was obviously intended for some nefarious purpose, so nobody's going to report its loss to the police--but because the purpose was nefarious, some unpleasant personage is sure to trace Henry through the items in his own briefcase and make his life difficult, if not a matter of the past tense. Of course, Henry intends to keep the cash, and he has strong motivation to use it to spirit himself and his wife, Jean, off to Barcelona, or some tropical island he could now probably purchase.

Alas, Henry's not-so-best-laid plans are complicated by the arrival of a police inspector investigating another matter, two family friends who get sucked into a resulting deception, an impatient cab driver and yet another police inspector who arrives to declare that Henry's body has been found, bound and bullet-punctured, in the river. This last announcement causes the real Henry some degree of distress, as one might imagine.

Most of the opening-night audience responded to Live Theatre Workshop's lively production with steady bursts of laughter, but I found myself rarely joining in. Part of the reason, as I've suggested, is that when you've seen one Ray Cooney farce, well, you know exactly what to expect from the next five. Also, even though Cooney wrote this one in 1994, the action is set in the late-1970s, which is perhaps the only way to make the side business about suspected homosexuality and wife-swapping seem more hip and less adolescent than it really is.

The generally perceptive director, Sabian Trout, wasn't inspired to come up with any really relevant information in the program's director's notes; she might have added a bit of much-needed edge to the show had she pointed out that British sodomy laws prohibited homosexual activity in the presence of others until only eight years ago. These characters resort to pretending they're wanking each other off under a blanket in front of the police because they believe that's less of an offense than what they're really up to.

What Trout has decided to do, unwisely, is amp up her female characters' goofball levels from the very beginning. A farce like this thrives on the idea that perfectly ordinary people are struggling to keep up normal appearances while everything spins wildly out of control. But when the characters start out silly, the later chaos seems less intense. Lunacy is a goofball's natural environment.

Jodi Rankin, as Jean, opens the action in her customary addled-ditz mode, so her drunken confusion later in the play may turn her limbs rubbery, but it doesn't really transform the character. As family-friend Betty, Holli Henderson adopts a squeaky little voice and shuffles along in quick little baby steps, as if what would soon befall Betty weren't ridiculous enough. Henderson is a sufficiently expert comic actress that she can draw laughs simply with the inflection of a single word, a fleeting facial expression or a little bit of physical business off to the side; burdening her with something as obvious as a funny voice is almost an insult to her talent.

The men come off better--Stephen Frankenfield as the foolishly impulsive Henry, a man trying to rise above his inherent dullness; Keith Wick as Vic, Henry's not entirely willing accomplice in deceit; Michael Woodson as a police detective on the make; and Eric Anson as the perhaps-too-helpful cabbie. Peg Peterson introduces a needed note of sanity and sincerity as the other cop, and Christopher Johnson comes out swinging at the end as an abused bystander.

The brightly lit lemon-chiffon set adds its bit of intensity to the proceedings, and Megan Lamb's costumes suggest the late-1970s without doing anything too silly (apart from that big bow at Henderson's neck).

LTW's core audience will surely find this production of Funny Money uproarious, but for my money, it isn't as funny as it ought to be.

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