by Jeff Grygny
Humor is born from humble beginnings: a man sits down to eat his lunch, and it turns into a fiasco of dribbling mustard, a wobbly table, a buzzing fly, and a hungry mongrel. Whether ending in a sad trombone or a satisfied “ahhh,” comedy comforts us by showing that chaos happens to everybody—not just us. It takes great skill and a light touch to make this work onstage, and in Unnecessary Farce, currently playing at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, playwright Paul Slade Smith charts the course from order to chaos and back again in a masterful display of the comedian’s craft. Under the expert direction of Ryan Schabach, a fearless crew of gifted funnypeople delivers the perfect remedy for mid-2019 gloom.
Shabach and his team have labored mightily to transfer the play’s generic setting to the “magical” land of Sheboygan, including the dialect, which Shabach describes in a whimsical program note as “a veritable melting pot of Canadian tonality, dairy farmer shorthand and a hint of that repetitious vowel we love so much from our fellow Illinois brethren who have bought up all the good lake front property”. We know in the opening scene that the action takes place before the digital age when Ben Yela, as a novice detective, buttons his shirt over a telephone cord. He and his equally-rookie partner have been assigned to a simple surveillance operation which, thanks to their (lets say) “unprofessional conduct,” soon becomes more tangled than one of those springy old cords.
The plot—a farrago about embezzled city funds and a preposterous “Scottish mafia”—is mere pretext for a ton of inspired physical humor. The players use everything in their limited environment for comic effect: clothes are discarded and put on, beds repeatedly rumpled and straightened as the characters vainly try to recover their shredding sense of control. In this world, the people we trust to uphold order are the most prone to distraction, while the seemingly clueless are actually the sharpest nails in the barrel. And, as this is a bedroom farce, the course is soon derailed by the character’s lusty impulses: fully two thirds of them appear in various states of undress before the play is over.
The actors wring maximum laughs from their loony predicaments, while holding to the essential emotional truthfulness that keeps the play from sinking into cheap clowning. All the same, they clearly love being clowns: the show is lit up with a kind of joy in executing one well-played gag after another. As the shy detective, the cherub-faced Yela runs through his paces with seeming effortlessness and the kind of charisma we associate with classic leading men. Rachael Zientek, as his claustrophobic partner, is as adorable as a kitten in a police cap. Amber Smith, in the role of an out-of-her-depths accountant, displays comic contortions as she is force to bluff her way through ever-stickier situations, while Rick Pendzich combines menace with silliness as a hit man who can only do his job after playing the bagpipes in full highland regalia. His efforts to make his heavy burr intelligible brought some of the evening’s heartiest guffaws.
When we leave a good comedy, our steps feel lighter, as if we ourselves have miraculously stumbled our way through calamity to victory and true love. Such stories are like medicine; when the world looks so little like what we hoped it would, to see that things can, at least in fiction, work out for the best, despite our imperfections—or even because of them. Comedy and Eros are as essential to life as pathos and realism, no? With this in mind, “Don’t Stop Believing” is the absolutely perfect song to play during the show’s intermission.
We can thank Artistic Director C. Michael Wright for making this delightful piece of fluff the lighthearted choice of his outgoing season.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents
by Paul Slade Smith
playing through August 25
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