Stage Door Review

It Runs in the Family

Monday, August 1, 2022

✭✭✭✩✩

by Ray Cooney, directed by Alex Mustakas

Drayton Entertainment, Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend

July 21-August 6, 2022;

Hamilton Family Theatre, Cambridge

August 12-28, 2022

Dr. Bonney: “Ahoy in front and avast behind”

Drayton Entertainment has recently had great success with the farces of British playwright Ray Cooney, such as One for the Pot (1966) in 2017 and Run for Your Wife (1983) in 2014. Now Drayton is staging a third Ray Cooney farce It Runs in the Family (1987) now playing at the Huron Country Playhouse and thereafter at the Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge.

As it turns out, this production of It Runs in the Family has three strikes against it. First, it is not as well constructed as One for the Pot or Run for Your Wife. Second, it is not as well cast as those two were. And third, director Alex Mustakas, founding Artistic Director of Drayton Entertainment, does not have the same iron grip on the action as Marcia Kash, who directed One for the Pot and Run for your Wife. Mustakas is far too willing to countenance excess in his actors’ performances.

The single set for the play is the Doctors’ Common Room of St. Andrew’s Hospital, London. Designer David Antscherl has created a reasonable facsimile of such a room as it might appear in the 1980s. It has two regular doors, two double swing doors and two huge windows so that, as is typical of farces, the set seems to have more perforations in its walls than wall space. If you wonder why the grating pre-show is music is Christmas music, it’s because the play is set three days before Christmas.

The plot’s focus is Dr. David Mortimer (Rob McClure), a neurologist who trying to practice his speech which will be this year’s Ponsonby Lecture, an honour, which if well received, could lead to Mortimer’s promotion and even a knighthood. Mortimer’s particular difficulty is that he is constantly being interrupted. First is young Dr. Mike Connolly (Teddy Moynihan), who wants Mortimer to be in the hospital panto. He’s not interested. Second is Mortimer’s wife Rosemary (Patricia Vanstone) who needs change for a parking meter. He does have any. Third is Dr. Hubert Bonney (Eddie Glen), who tries to get Mortimer in the Christmas spirit. He’s not interested. Fourth is Sir Willoughby Drake (Patrick R. Brown), Chairman of the Hospital Board, who keeps checking on how Mortimer’s speech is going.

All these minor interruptions have been leading up to the biggest irruption of all – the unexpected appearance of Jane Tate (Amanda Leigh), who was a nurse at St. Andrew’s and now has some unwelcome news for Mortimer. Mortimer and Jane had a fling about 19 years ago that produced a son, Leslie (Ben Skipper). Since he is old enough to know, Jane told Leslie that his father works at St. Andrew’s. This caused Leslie immediately to set off to the hospital to see his dad except that his rush incurred several motor vehicle violations. Now Leslie wants his father to accompany him to the police station.

Mortimer wants nothing to do with Jane or this new punkish son or anything that will jeopardize his chance for promotion. The lies he tells about who Jane is and why there is policeman downstairs grow larger and larger until Mortimer ropes Bonney in to support him and the time for the Ponsonby Lecture arrives.

The humour of Act 1 is almost entirely verbal. Mortimer’s generating of lies to cover up other lies eventually leaves the audience reeling as the question of who knows what about whom keeps changing. The problem is that Cooney has left himself nowhere to go in Act 2. All that needs to happen is for all the characters to be on stage at the same time to sort out the truth from the lies.

Cooney has a great conclusion planned, one that anticipates the modern idea of choosing you own family by about a decade or more. Unfortunately, Cooney feels he need to fill out the action to make the show a full-length play. For that reason, he introduces the totally unnecessary character of the patient Bill (Keith Savage), who really should be in a dementia facility not a general hospital like St. Andrew’s. Bill, not Mortimer, sudden becomes the main source of humour which takes a concomitant turn from verbal to physical.

I’m not sure that slamming a patient in a wheelchair into a window seat is funny the first time, but it certainly is not funny the tenth time. When Bonney brings out a seltzer bottle for the policeman, I dreaded that Cooney writing in 1987 was heading back to the days of silent movie comedy – and so he was and with even less motivation for people being sprayed with seltzer than in those movies. And then, all the fuss over the policeman interviewing the drugged Matron (Mary Kelly), makes no sense even within the framework of the farce and is simply another delaying device.

Unlike One for the Pot or and Run for Your Wife, It Runs in the Family is burdened with an unlikeable central character. Mortimer is a vain egotist and his rejection of Jane and Leslie is a sign of his moral bankruptcy. The only way an actor can make us even moderately care about Mortimer is by involving us in his attempts to stave off the discovery of his secret. Neither Mustakas as director nor McClue as actor do anything of the sort. If McClure were to show us Mortimer’s desperation and his difficulty in thinking up new lies, we might side with him. But as McClure’s Mortimer comes up with each new lie without a moment’s hesitation to the point that he McClure seems more to be reciting lines than acting as his character.

Eddie Glen presents the complete opposite to this approach. Characters in farce are always in danger of appearing like puppets of the writer, but Glen’s success in farce stems from his playing the characters as he would characters in any other play. The result is that his characters are more rounded, more real and we care what happens to them. So it is here. At first we wonder why Glen has been cast as the mousy, humourless Dr. Bonney, but soon enough we discover that the hapless doctor is roped in to helping Mortimer wth his multiple deceptions. Bonney agrees because he, unlike Mortimer, actually likes Jane and apparently always has. Glen knows that the secret to comedy, and especially to farce, is that the characters take everything they do absolutely seriously no matter how ridiculous it appears to us.

The other actors who follow this same approach are Patricia Vanstone as the serious, would-be upper-class Mrs. Mortimer; Aaron Walpole as the earnest Police Sergeant who simply wants to do his job despite the falsehoods and the physical abuse he receives from the people he’s trying to help; and Amanda Leigh as Jane Tate, who exudes a warmth of personality despite the coldness she receives from Mortimer.

Patrick R. Brown is well cast as authoritative Sir Willoughby, the no-nonsense Chairman of the Board, but there’s an odd flaw in his work. Mortimer fobs him off repeatedly by pouring him two fingers of scotch. Most actors, or directors, would take this as a cue that Sir Willoughby should appear slightly more intoxicated with each entrance. Brown does not do this. Sir Willoughby appears totally unaffected by drink until his final entrance when he enters, tottering, hair dishevelled and slurring his speech. How did neither Brown nor Mustakas catch this?

Both Ben Skipper and Teddy Moynihan play their roles rather too large, but Skipper as the perpetually overwrought Leslie has more cause and Moynihan, as a colleague of Bonney and Mortimer, does not. Again, one of the purposes of a director is to keep the level of acting even, and Mustakas fails to do this.

The worst example is Keith Savage as Bill. It’s bad enough that Cooney uses Bill to puff up his play to two acts, but Savage uses the occasion to go farther over the top than an Everest climber. Most of the audience found his mugging, laughing and shrieking very funny. I found it depressing. Savage is so erratic in his actions that we don’t know if Bill is supposed to be insane or merely obnoxious. Bill arrives in a wheelchair, but it seems he can stand and walk whenever he likes. I have enjoyed Savage’s performances in the past, but this was just too much.

Savage’s performance pretty much drove me to embarrassed silence rather than laughter and typified a production in which the director simply did not exert the high degree of control to make the clockwork of a farce function smoothly. Rather than trying to minimize the flaws in the play, Mustakas’ laissez-faire approach only made them more obvious. Contrary to popular belief, farces are extremely difficult to bring off because it is a genre that lives only in the theatre and only in the moment it is being performed where who knows what when and who is where when becomes our overriding focus during the action.

So far in Ontario theatre only Christopher Newton and Marcia Kash have shown an understanding of how to direct a farce and Newton is sadly no longer with us. With that in mind I will look for Kash’s name next time Drayton attempts this unusually demanding genre.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Rob McClure as Dr. Mortimer; Rob McClure as Dr. Mortimer and Eddie Glen as Dr. Bonney; Rob McClure as Dr. Mortimer and Ben Skipper as Leslie. © 2022 Darlene O’Rourke.

For tickets visit www.draytonentertainment.com.