I think of Alan Bennett as a chronicler of the lives of those inhabiting a certain stratum of British society: lonely, middle-class people, conventional, self-conscious and always slightly embarrassed at themselves, like the monologuists of Talking Heads or Bennett's self-depiction as the unwilling host of The Lady in the Van. But while Habeas Corpus, written in the early 1970s, reveals tinges of sexual shame and ambivalence, it is a far more robust piece of work, a laugh-out-loud-funny -- but still very English -- sex farce. Not joyous or French or uninhibited, but a sex farce nonetheless.
Wicksteed, a doctor whose response to the countless human genitalia he's inspected in his lifetime lies somewhere between indifference and disgust, neglects his wife, Muriel -- whose own repressed sexuality seethes in her bosom -- to chase after a nubile young thing called (of course) Felicity. A flat-chested, frumpy aunt yearns for breasts, while a canon called Throbbing yearns for her. And then there are Felicity's mother, the quintessential colonial wife Lady Rumpers; Wicksteed's hypochondriacal son; a suicidal patient; the arrogant Sir Percy; and the hapless salesman charged with fitting false breasts.
The play is funny enough as written, I imagine, but Germinal raises the ante in several ways. Director Ed Baierlein has chosen to stress the cartoonishness of the characters, and several of the performers utilize a two-dimensional, face-forward acting style. Jim Miller is all unctuous grins as Canon Throbbing. Playing the curve-challenged Connie, Jennifer Ann Forsyth wears an almost perpetual expression of pursed-lip surprise, though there's a wonderful, almost angry energy behind her flat-footed, toe-in preening. Dennis, the Wicksteeds' son, is a caricature of the poetic, sensitive young men who roam the pages of literature. Tad Baierlein gives him a dopey little grin and a gangly, nerveless way of moving. Lori Hansen maintains a rigid posture as uptight Muriel, but you can see the emotion quivering in her chin, and when she cuts loose with a burlesque-style striptease, it's hysterically funny. Kristina Denise Pitt is a poised, sexy, deliberately blank-faced Felicity.
Sallie Diamond does pull out all the stops as the absurd Lady Rumpers, but it's left to Ed Baierlein's Wicksteed to add some kind of wistfully ambiguous feeling to the evening, as he descants on the inherent filthiness of the human body and muses on the inevitability of death -- utilizing the occasional literary quotation or snatch of nonsense rhyme.
Linda A. Barner frames the action, and keeps it in motion as charlady-commentator Mrs. Swabb. I do think this role would have worked better had Barner opted to display some kind of response to the crazed goings-on, whether boredom, amusement or annoyance.
Attempted English accents are the bane of many local productions, but Baierlein doesn't just sidestep the problem, he stands it on its head and gives it a little twirl. The actors mock and exaggerate their own assumed accents, drawing out the words, imitating each others' mispronunciations and making the language a joke in itself. Holiday becomes "hodiday," marriage "merridge," happy "hippy." And it should be illegal to have as much fun in public as Diamond has with the name Addis Ababa.
The show is expertly staged; the production does full justice to Bennett's combination of world-weariness and raunchy schoolboy humor. This is one of the funniest shows I've seen in years.
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