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Northern Stage Breathes Life, and Fun, Into a Dated British Farce

Northern Stage’s producing director Catherine Doherty sure knows how to stage a farce, even when the farce is No Sex Please, We’re British, a dusty fossil hauled out of storage from the Benny Hill Memorial Museum for Slapstick and Innuendo.

When the play was first produced on London’s West End in 1971, its jokes and double-entendre, revolving around blue movies and dirty pictures from sexy, uninhibited Scandinavia, were already tired. And the premise on which the play hinges — newlyweds unwittingly take receipt of the illegal pornography and spend the rest of the play trying to rid themselves of it — is as flimsy as can be.

But, OK, I surrender. Sort of.

The play by Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott is, as the publicity for this production emphasizes, critic-proof. True enough. It ran for 16 years in London, cheerfully impervious to the moaning and whining of stuffy theater critics who saw in it nothing of originality or true wit or a modicum of real feeling beneath the antics.

But if you have a cast willing to take silliness seriously you can pull it off. And audiences enjoy time capsules such as this because they seem charmingly archaic. What an innocent time, the audience says nostalgically, thinking back 30 or 40 years, although the period in question was anything but. The dated, uncomplicated quality is precisely what gives it appeal; that, and a lot of slamming doors and physical comedy involving heavy boxes being shoved, carried, hauled and thrown.

The star of the show is Brian Runnicles, a hapless bank clerk who gets pulled into the scheming of his colleague Peter Hunter, and Hunter’s wife, Frances, to divest themselves of the naughty bits. Runnicles is a walking disaster: confusion and error stalk him like a lion stalking a gazelle on the savannah. He is played by Scott Cote, who brought a wonderfully wild-eyed, unhinged quality to a similar role last year in Northern Stage’s production of Boeing, Boeing.

Cote and Doherty grasp that comedy, particularly physical comedy, turns on the idea of a universe falling apart at the seams while one innocent tries valiantly to stuff it all back in as fast as he can, even as chaos leaks out of every hole.

Cote has a perfect face for comedy, with malleable features and big eyes that can widen or narrow as necessary. He also has a limber voice that can go up and down the scales with impressive speed and versatility, and quick hands and feet. He’s very funny to watch and listen to, although some of the comic business here is recycled from Boeing, Boeing. On occasion, Cote is so over the top that he almost strangles the laughs. There is such a thing as being too hammy, even in a play that serves it up non-stop.

Cote has a witty foil in Alexis Hyatt, who plays Frances Hunter and was last seen this winter at Northern Stage as a steely Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest. She’s a talented, subtle comedienne who gets laughs by doing the small things that make the difference between workmanlike and inspired. Watch her try to move a very heavy carton across the floor: she is nearly horizontal when she does it; or watch her maintain a sunny, invariably polite charm on the surface while panic seeps out from underneath.

Hyatt and Cote are ably supported by Dane Dandridge Clark, as Peter Hunter. Initially, the actor didn’t seem to be up to the kind of comedy that Cote and Hyatt dish up, although part of that is a function of the straight man part: the conventional man trying to maintain his position in life. But Clark holds up his end of the comic triangle because he does exasperation well and he enters fully into the spirit of mayhem.

As Peter’s mother Eleanor Hunter, Kathryn Kendall plays the dowager mother-in-law with an amusing obliviousness to what’s right under her nose. Tom Treadwell, as Peter’s boss Leslie Bromhead, who becomes infatuated with Eleanor, is the model of stodgy officiousness. In smaller parts, Shu-nan Chu, Meghan Grace O’Leary, Kasey Brown, John Reshetar and Aaron Thurston keep the good-natured comedy spinning along.

This brings me to a final question: Does Northern Stage really need to do this play and the upcoming musical Nunsense back to back?

Not every production has to be David Mamet, or the canceled production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which was to have been directed by Brooke Ciardelli, the departed artistic director. Some froth can be a good thing, but this has been a season that’s also seen Born Yesterday, Sleuth, Peter Pan, The Importance of Being Earnest and now No Sex Please and Nunsense.

One Mamet play doesn’t balance out a slate of resolutely tame theater. Getting the company on a sound financial footing is important, but so is staging theater that doesn’t feel stale and safe. If you’re not watching theater with a sense of urgency and unpredictably to it, what’s the point?

“No Sex Please, We’re British” runs through April 21 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. For information and tickets, call 802-296-7000 or go to www.northernstage.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.