At Miners Alley, the farce is with Habeas Corpus

Director Richard Pegg is English, and he completely gets Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, a nutty sex farce set in Hove in the '70s. The rhythms of the dialogue are bone-deep familiar to him — a rare and deeply welcome thing in this area. Pegg knows about Brighton and Hove, and why defining Leeds as uncivilized territory is funny. He knows British humor enough to adorn his poster for the show with those naughty postcards once sold at every seaside shop, postcards featuring huge-bottomed men and women with chubby cheeks and tiny cherry noses. He knows that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of Englishman vacillates perennially between shame and lust.

Pegg also knows his Alan Bennett, having directed a brilliant production of two of the monologues from Talking Heads some years ago at Everyman, his long-closed theater in Littleton. It's fitting that his director's note is a tribute to his mother, whose silver-framed photograph apparently adorned the set of many of his shows (including Talking Heads), and who died last year at the age of 91; Bennett's ironic melancholia is a defining feature of his work. You get it here primarily in monologues by the protagonist: randy, cynical Dr. Wicksteed, who spends most of the evening trying to get his hands on young Felicity Rumpers's bouncing breasts but pauses now and then to muse on mortality and the frailty of the human condition.

Wicksteed isn't the only one pursuing Felicity — everyone wants her, and her formidable mother, Lady Rumpers, intends to see that no one gets her. Unfortunately, someone already has: Felicity's pregnant. She's looking for a face-saving marriage, and when Wicksteed's weedy hypochondriacal son, Dennis, informs her that he only has three months to live, she thinks she's found the man of her dreams. Meanwhile, Wicksteed's wife, Muriel, pines for her husband's attentions and seeks the sexual warmth she's missing with anyone who crosses her path; Muriel's flat-chested sister, Constance, sends away for false breasts and — once they arrive — discovers that their life-changing potential is greater than she'd ever imagined; Canon Throbbing pines for Constance, who doesn't want him; the troublemaking maid, Mrs. Swabb, stirs the pot and provides cheeky commentary; one of Wicksteed's patients wanders on periodically to make futile suicide attempts; and a man called Shanks, sent by the makers of Constance's falsies to check on durability and fit, fingers every nipple in sight. And every now and then, a character begins speaking in rhyme or breaks into song.

The very strong cast performs with tremendous gusto and freedom, and provides three moments I'll never forget. The first is Dennis expectorating — but this isn't just spit. This expectoration lasts several seconds, beginning deep in the lungs and rattling phlegmily in the throat and mouth before being released into freedom with a large and triumphant gurgle. Then there's Lady Rumpers's faint, which requires her to straighten herself, hand her hat to another character and fall backward over the chaise longue with admirable poise and slowness. The third: Waiting in vain for Felicity at the end of the pier, Wicksteed deploys a raggy little-girl puppet. She's supposed to be his mouthpiece. She's supposed to be Felicity. But then it turns out she has a life of her own and she's trying desperately to escape from the end of his arm.

Central to the production's success is Verl Hite's Wicksteed, whose persona is in direct contradiction to his venality. He seems kindly, reassuring and dignified, exactly what you'd want in a doctor, and this makes his immorality doubly funny — and sort of sad, as well. Lindsey Pierce is hilarious as the well-endowed Muriel — imperious, desperate, grabbing all the male attention she can; Kestrel Burley is a frumpy, innocent and rather touching Constance. As Lady Rumpers, Deborah Persoff has an indecent amount of fun, and she has the wit, skill and energy to make sure you do, too. Theresa Reid's impish Mrs. Swabb and Bethany Lillis's imperturbable Felicity add to the hilarity. And where did they get the expectorating Adam Perkes? He cuts loose only once or twice as Dennis, but when he does, his lunacy is inspired. We all end up dead, Habeas Corpus tells us, so gather ye rosebuds while ye may. And, while you're at it, grab all the breasts and bottoms you can.

 
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