Ray Cooney's "Run For Your Wife" is the sort of clever but dumb farce that Alan Ayckbourn has supposedly made irrelevant. Why go for the second-rate brand when you can choose the artful?
Ensemble Stage Company, in a visiting production at the Victory Theatre, doesn't really answer the question. The group, led by director Michael Kelley, is made up mostly of Seattle theater veterans who did "Wife" earlier this year up Puget Sound way. Whatever else is served up at the Victory, the ensemble performance zooms like a well-practiced relay team.
It would be interesting to see what this group could do with Ayckbourn (they'd have to work on the British accents), because then, the performances could be in the service of something. Ayckbourn's farces about married couples send you home thinking; Cooney's sends you home with a faint chuckle at best.
Close to the spirit (if not the naughtiness) of "No Sex Please, We're British," "Wife" starts with the near-implausible, gets far-fetched, then piles complication upon complication. It seems that a taxi driver named John Smith (Erich Von Heeder) is married to different women at the same time--homely Mary Smith (Nikki Petersen) and sexy Barbara Smith (Dana Reynolds). John has mastered this double life with the help of his trusty date book, but when an altercation lands him in the hospital and throws him off schedule, the farce begins.
John confesses his secret life to nosy upstairs neighbor, Stanley (Keith Nicholai), which only sucks Stanley into a crazy quilt of concocted identities and alibis that Cooney spends two hours weaving into impossible knots. The real test of both Cooney's contrived plotting and John's games is when Mary and Barbara finally meet--and what playwright and besieged husband do about it.
The show passes or fails depending on your tolerance for farce that doesn't just suspend disbelief, but flushes it right down the loo. Cooney uses characters as devices; thus, Barbara's gay upstairs neighbor, Bobby (Tim Diamond), is nothing more than a means to inject lots of unfortunate "nancy" and "poofter" humor. Stanley is a means to getting John in hot water, and the police investigators (Paul Fleming as the tough cop, Michael Langley as the nice cop) hang around because the plot requires them to.
Von Heeder anchors the nonsense with a low-simmering hysteria, while Petersen rises to funny full boil and Reynolds stays very, very cool. Nicholai is the best clown on stage, a farceur with a human face.
Rocky Rhodes' set design confusingly suggests that the Smith households are two places on a divided single set, but then Kelley's staging doesn't obey the division. Confusion plus nonsense equals the lowest of low-calorie theater.
"Run For Your Wife" Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Tickets $16 to $19. Ends Oct. 29. (818) 445-7529.