Political comedy isn't what it used to be, but what shtickmeister could compete with the running gags of those currently holding office?
David Mamet took up the challenge and came up short with his Oval Office farce "November," leadenly staged last fall at the Mark Taper Forum. Now we have "Yes, Prime Minister" trying to tickle audiences at the Geffen Playhouse with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the British government.
Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the team that co-created the popular BBC television series "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister," the show redeploys the characters from those programs to satirize a political system in which civil servants pride themselves on being both the puppet masters and the cleanup squad of a benighted prime minister.
As a species of farce, this one is unusually wordy, with mouthfuls of exposition laboriously setting up each and every joke. The cast, which includes Michael McKean as the prime minister and Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays and Tara Summers as key advisors, is top notch. But the acting takes place almost entirely from the neck up. Instead of doors slamming there are tongues wagging and, yes, accents flailing.
As the plot revolves around a colossal bailout of the faltering European financial system by an oil-rich Asian nation, the characters can't help sounding at times like BBC News anchors.
"They have oil," explains Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Matthews) to Jim Hacker (McKean), the bewildered prime minister. "Massive new reserves have been found in Kumranistan. They're offering a possible 10-trillion-dollar loan to Europe, secured against further purchases."
Appleby's practice is to keep the prime minister in a state of primordial innocence. To the question of whether this bailout deal depends on Britain joining the euro, he coolly replies, "Prime minister, I urge you not to clutter your mind with procedural detail and monetary trivia."
The wit can be topically sharp at moments (especially when taking aim at Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi), but the effect is muffled by the prolonged bureaucratic chatter. Talk of summits, interest rates, Davos and index-linked pensions kills the jocular mood. This is comedy for the pinstriped Financial Times set.
Farce requires an accelerant. The one supplied by Jay and Lynn is decidedly old school. Kumranistan's foreign secretary demands some sexual entertainment for the night, prompting the prime minister and his aides to agonize over whether they should use the royal helicopter to fly in three prostitutes to satisfy this barbarian's appetite.
The action unfolds in the prime minister's study at Chequers, his official country residence. The setting is sumptuously designed by Simon Higlett, but the production, directed by Lynn, has a pacing problem: The antics never take off.
This is largely a function of a script that cries out for austerity measures. (A 15% cut in the show's length would noticeably improve its performance.) But it's also a matter of cultural context. For an American audience deprived of a long-term TV relationship with the characters and hazy on certain aspects of British parliamentary rule, the work simply isn't as funny as it is for English theatergoers.
It's not clear why Geffen artistic director Randall Arney imported this second-rate farce to Los Angeles, but the theater has certainly used the occasion to gather some terrific American actors. Matthews excels in his Machiavellian role, breathlessly delivering arias of political double talk so windy they deserve their own category in the Guinness World Records.
Mays, last seen at the Old Globe in the Broadway-bound "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," could do with a bit more comic business. In addition to his great verbal dexterity, he's such an agile physical comedian. Here he must make a meal of astonished double takes and deer-in-headlights reactions to the mayhem.
McKean, who sounds the least English of the principal performers, is somewhat miscast as the prime minister. There's something a little too sloppily real about his presence to make him a convincing political mannequin. But his portrayal of the feckless Jim Hacker is highly sympathetic, and he skips down the play's path with the necessary lunatic conviction.
As the Cambridge-educated Claire Sutton, Summers, a British actress best known for her role on "Boston Legal," adds a spot of authenticity to a production that can sorely use it. Accents aren't everything, but they can reassure us that we're in knowledgeable hands.
Too often this production of "Yes, Prime Minister" confirms the truth of Britain and America as two nations divided by a common language.
'Yes, Prime Minister'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 14.
Tickets: $47 to $77
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
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