Gentle Farce 

'Her Husband's Wife' at Comedy Playhouse is perfect light fare for a hot summer night

The Comedy Playhouse is located at the corner of First Avenue and Prince Road, in a small, partially deserted shopping plaza.

Inside the theater, however, you'll find yourself in a surprisingly homey little space. Currently, the stage is set up like a turn-of-the-century drawing room for the latest production, A.E. Thomas' 1908 comedy Her Husband's Wife.

Actor, director and Comedy Playhouse proprietor Bruce Bieszki introduces the show with a series of jokes, offering a genteel invitation into the company's old-fashioned world. Appropriately, Bieszki was dressed in formal wear in order to play a butler in Her Husband's Wife.

The company tends to produce all-but-forgotten comedies of a bygone era, and the current production gives the work of Thomas a brief—and rare—return to the spotlight. An American who lived from 1872 to 1947, Thomas wrote a number of successful plays, some of which made the transition to film.

His first professionally produced play, Her Husband's Wife, is a light-as-soufflé farce. Imagine Oscar Wilde without Wilde's subversive edge.

The play centers on hypochondriac Irene (Cristin Phibbs), who is convinced—without any solid evidence—that she will soon die. Determined to provide a suitable second wife for her husband, Stuart (Drew Kallen), before she passes away, Irene selects dowdy Emily (Rebecca Niessen), certain that Emily will treat Stuart well—without providing any real competition with Irene in Stuart's memory.

Emily is so insulted that she promptly gives herself a makeover, shedding her frumpy skirt and glasses for a ravishing red gown. The costumes are not exactly historically accurate (no one wore skirts that short in 1908), but the world of the play is not strictly realistic for any time period, so such details do not greatly distract.

Emily pretends to go along with the scheme, but as she stirs up Irene's suddenly very real jealousy, she also attempts to reconnect with her old flame, Irene's brother Richard (Paul Hammack). All the while, Uncle John (Frank Solis) serves as a sort of one-man chorus, providing a figure for the characters to vent to, and keeping the audience in on what's going on.

The Comedy Playhouse uses amateur actors, many of whom appear regularly on its stage. For the most part, they're charming and engaging, if not always polished.

However, Solis' delivery as Uncle John is slow and occasionally difficult to understand; his scenes tend to drag down the pace, especially since his character is essentially a device to deliver information.

In a milder form, the same critique could be applied to the whole main cast. The actors occasionally seem overwhelmed by the large mouthfuls of dialogue; they strain to enunciate every word, and they pause frequently. The play's a farce, though, and farce should be delivered quickly and confidently.

Similarly, the blocking is a bit static; the actors tend to sit or stand in essentially the same position for most of a scene. This stillness is wasteful, especially since the actors do well in the few moments of physical comedy they attempt.

Overall, however, the production is quite winning. I didn't anticipate that a gentle turn-of-the-century comedy would be just the thing for a hot summer evening in Tucson, but—surprisingly—it is. The actors, especially Hammack, do a nice job of adding individual touches to their stock characters. The script happily mocks its characters, but the tone is never cruel.

I've often complained that actors tend to lapse into (often gratingly poor) British accents when required to play "old-fashioned" characters. I long to crawl under my seat in secondhand embarrassment when actors start lilting into long vowels, as if they were Eliza Doolittle learning how to speak "proper." ("How doooo you doooo?")

This time, I was more forgiving of the actors' Britishisms. Even though the play is set in Saratoga, N.Y., the script owes such a clear debt to British comedies that you could be forgiven for believing the play is set in England's green and pleasant land. Plus, no actor's semi-British accent is remarkably terrible; Kallen, as Stuart, actually has one of the more believable British accents heard onstage in Tucson. It's unnecessary for the play ... but it's pretty good.

So, for the great feat of being charming, witty and good-hearted enough to make me look past my pet peeve, Her Husband's Wife deserves special commendation.

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