Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
What a gosh-darned silly show this is! In case you haven't heard "Off The Hook" - playing at Oldcastle through September 4th - is a wacky broad farce, broadly directed by Russell Kaplan.
Authors Allen Lewis Rickman and Karl Tiedemann claim they "started out with absolutely no idea about what we wanted to do than to write the funniest play we could" - and therein lies the problem. "Off The Hook" is indeed funny, but it has no idea what it is about. A slapstick farce needs to have a driving force. Someone needs to be convinced that they have to conceal something or accomplish something or escape from something in order for all the insanity to mean something. Why in the world would you slam all those doors unless your job/marriage/life was at stake?
True, the show starts out with an apparently real threat to the life and marriage of Sir Evelyn Carstairs (George Millenbach), the bumbling British Ambassador to the United Nations. It seems he was spotted receiving an innocent peck on the cheek from Angie Puglese (Marcy Golub), the wife of mobster Phil "The Exterminator" Puglese (co-author Allen Lewis Rickman). Carstairs is anxious to save his own hide and conceal the escapade from his over acheiving wife Sarah (Daryl Kenny). However, he was driving his cook Chester's (Willy Jones) car, and so Phil and his side-kick Frankie "The Whittler" (Joseph Antignani) come looking for him rather than Sir Evelyn. At the same time an international incident occurs when a British fishing trawler is caught illegally poaching the famed spangled halibut from the waters off the fictional South American country of San Martino. Their Ambassador, Colonel Antonio de Navarro (Neal Hemphill) arrives at the same time as the mobsters to negotiate a settlement.
Needless to say everyone ends up thinking everyone else is someone they aren't. Fish are tossed about. Men and women end up in various states of undress. Doors are slammed. Mickeys are slipped to all the wrong people. Thanks to an energetic and appealing cast, you will find yourself laughing quite a bit. But I woke up the following morning with a sharper memory of the play's flaws than of its humor. Kind of like Chinese food - an hour later your hungry for some real theatre.
The authors simply introduced too many comic ideas in their efforts to write "the funniest play". This is the second professional staging of this play, the first being this past February at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen, NJ. Rickman appears in the play and both he and Tiedmann were "in residence" at Oldcastle during rehearsals of this production. I think they might have used their time better stepping away from this play and working on some re-writes. They do have a lively comic writing style - if they could tighten up the plot they might really have "the funniest play" on their hands.
Millenbach has the British Twit posture down perfectly, but his British accent comes and goes, and his character is so poorly drawn that it is hard to appreciate the talents the actor brings to the role. Jones is great fun, as always, and got the biggest hand from the opening night crowd. But Hemphill was the comic standout for me. Large and grandiose, even when reduced to wearing a straitjacket, covered in dirt (from an attempt to bury him alive) and fish (his suit was stolen and hidden in a pot of fish stew) his final concession of diplomatic defeat is a monument to the gods of farce.
I was also impressed with the flexibility of Golub, who wound up in a strapless black teddy and Hemphill's fish covered suit coat draped lifelessly over the sofa. Prior to obtaining this ludicrous posture, she had been dragged about the set, sat on, stuffed in to closets, and undressed. At one point Jones missed the chair he was tossing her in to and she ended up on the floor in a heap with nary a muscle twitching. It takes a brave actress to suffer those indignities and make it look as if she really was unconcious.
Alexander Dodge has designed a handsome set. My only complaint was that the backdrop made it appear that the french doors led out on to a balcony, while the action of the play indicated that they led out into a street level garden, which a New York City embassy building would be unlikely to have between itself and the sidewalk. Kenneth Mooney has had fun with the costumes. Hemphill's silk boxer shorts were a sight for sore eyes! And someone should cast Kenny quick in a play about Jacqueline Kennedy - she was a dead ringer in her little blue suit, pearls and bouffant hairstyle.
My biggest disappointment with this show was that the fish didn't get more to do. Some one sewed two lovely stuffed fish and by intermission they had been tossed unceremoniously into corners of the set - never to reemerge. Considering that the title of the show is fish-inspired, I was hoping for a big comic climax involving a whole school of those spangled halibut. If no one else wants it, I'll take the big fish for a throw pillow.
"Off The Hook or Caught in the Fishnets" runs through September 4 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company, in residence at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of Route 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999