Deception, as Sir Walter Scott famously put it, is a “tangled web” that, more often than not, ensnares its weaver in the long run.
But, damn, if it doesn’t make for good entertainment on stage.
The plot of “Run For Your Wife,” which opened Friday at the Granite Theatre, is just such a situation: A bigamous husband juggling two households and two wives, an unforeseen mishap that threatens to expose his deception, and the increasingly unstable scaffold of lies and counter-lies he constructs to keep the whole business from crashing down upon his head, already bandaged from the mishap that kick-starts the action.
John Smith (Keith Eugene Brayne) is a London cabbie leading a double life, with a wife named Mary (Anna Convery) in an apartment in the Wimbledon section of town, and another named Barbara (Danielle Conti) in an apartment in nearby Streatham. Mary is composed and reserved, while Barbara is a bit on the wild and randy side. Stanley Gardner (Brian Olsen), upstairs neighbor in the Wimbledon building, is a bachelor who is “temporarily unemployed” as he puts hit, though he is “thinking of making it permanent.” This apparently gives him plenty of spare time to pop in on the Smiths, which he does on the morning that John happens to be brought home from the hospital in a delirious state. In an attempt to prevent a mugging the night before, he was mistaken for one of the crooks and received a blow to the noggin with the mugee’s purse.
Det. Sgt. Toughton (Steve Spartano) is good enough to bring him back home, to Mary’s relief, as she had been telephoning the police in search of her husband. The problem (for John) is that his other wife was doing the same, frantically calling the Streatham police, whose own Det. Sgt. Porterhouse (Greg Bliven) is on the job in search of Smith as well. Then there is the news reporter (John Lamar) who has gotten wind of the story and wants to put news of the assault on the front page. But Smith wants to avoid the publicity, since he lied to Barbara about his injury, claiming he hit his head on a beam at a farmhouse owned by Gardner, who goes along with the story. When called upon, the hapless neighbor even goes so far as to pretend to be Smith’s secret, gay lover. If the plot is hard to follow at this point, that is nothing compared to the middle of the first act, let alone the tail end of second. As Smith shuttles back and forth between households, pursued by police and aided by Gardner’s faithful, albeit feeble, support, he stacks one implausible fib upon another until the inevitable (and predictable) point where they all implode.
A good bit of the action is also driven by physical comedy. Olsen takes more than a few pratfalls over the furniture and headlong into wastepaper baskets. Convery’s nervous breakdown under the stress of the situation is especially ear-shattering (perhaps a bit much so), while Conti rarely misses an opportunity to stress her character’s lustiness by striking Betty Boopish poses in her thigh-high teddy. Meanwhile Bliven thoroughly inhabits his role as the blustery, beefy police sergeant with his sheer height, width, and stage presence that altogether scream “cop” whenever he lumbers onto the stage, even when wearing an apron, as he does in one scene.
Yet in spite of its standard comedic plot elements, “Run For Your Wife” has flaws. For one thing, its plot is derivative of another play Granite Theatre regulars may recall, “Boeing Boeing,” right down to the love-nest schedule each girl-juggling, bachelor-pal-aided main character carries in his pocket.
More problematic are its stereotyping and mocking portrayals of gays as limp-wristed “pansies” with a penchant for interior decorating. While such slurs may have been more commonly accepted during the early 1980s when the play first opened, they have never been okay. Would audiences in this day and age be as warmly receptive to a comedy in which blacks are lampooned as lazy and simpleminded, Irish are summarily dismissed as ignorant drunkards, or Jews are derided as socially inferior and miserly? Even the opening-night audience registered audible disgust with Smith’s dismissive and sexist denunciation of Barbara as “a cow.”
So while fun, frolic, mistaken identities and backfired plans are the standard building blocks of the romantic farce, it may not be the words of Walter Scott that best epitomize this play but those of his contemporary, Edmund Kean, the great English actor who allegedly declared, on his deathbed: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”