Playwright Ray Cooney’s farces have a standard recipe: 1. Place ordinary people in extraordinary situations with potentially dire consequences. 2. Let laughter ensue. Catch Me, Comrade, the high-octane farce currently being given an appropriately energetic (and at times quite amusing) staging at the Hedgerow Theatre, is no exception.
This is the ninth consecutive summer this company has mounted one of Cooney’s exercises in complicated plotting and comic mayhem. The first six productions were terrific; 2004’s Funny Money ranks among the area’s funniest shows of the decade. In the last couple of years, though, the laughs have fallen off a bit: The casts of 2008’s There Goes the Bride and in 2009’s One for the Pot, were as enthusiastic as ever, but the plays themselves were not nearly as appealing. Thankfully, director Jared Reed’s pick of Comrade is a return to form.
Penned early in Cooney’s career, Comrade isn’t as mathematically precise as Funny Money or other Hedgerow productions like Run for Your Wife or Caught in the Net, but Reed’s exacting choreography more than makes up for the play’s occasional lapses.
The absurdly complicated plot (a Cooney hallmark) centers on Russian ballet dancer Petrovyan (David Polgar, who spends the play speaking in a bad Russian accent and pirouetting about the stage), who decides to leave his troupe to run off with a British ballerina named Alicia (Rachel Holmes). The pair hides out with Alicia’s friend Nancy (the promising Tara Haupt), who lives with her father, Commander Rimmington (Hedgerow vet Bob Liga), a British government official. Nancy and Alicia must hide Petrovyan from not only from the Commie-hating Commander, but also the Russians and a dogged British constable (Jim Fryer).
Alicia and Petrovyan attempt to flee to Ireland with the help of Nancy, her devoted if beleaguered fiancé Gerry (the delightful Carl Smith) and the estate’s teetotaler gardener Hoskins (Bob Meenan, in the production’s most restrained performance).
The performances are broad, yes. But Comrade isn’t about introspection, it’s about action, and the ensemble functions well as a team to execute the precise physical comedy.
Reed’s staging has some of the most complicated blocking you’re ever likely to see: Actors get hurled through doors and over furniture, scale the insides of chimneys, perform a ballet version of the Hustle and, in one memorable instance, get humped in a fireplace. The cast performs the continuous dance of mayhem effortlessly, with impressive stamina and excellent timing.
The performances of Carl Smith and Zoran Kovcic, as British security agent Mr. Laver, stand out. A veteran of all nine Cooney plays at Hedgerow, Kovcic is tasked with acting drunk for most of the production (a state that most actors play horrendously), and he pulls the mix of intoxicated and uptight off well.
Smith’s Gerry is also a delight. To aid his fiancée, Gerry has to impersonate both a British naval commander and a Russian ballet dancer. With much flailing and anxious pacing, Smith’s impersonations aren't quite believable, but he plays his many sight gags with good-natured zeal and an appealing, unassuming stage presence.
The set (Kovcic pulls double-duty as the show’s scenic designer) is sparse for the average living room of an English country estate, but it's necessary in a show that puts a premium on movement. Cathie Miglionico’s costumes are more authentic, in the outlandish colors and patterns of the '80s.
If you take your theater very seriously, Comrade is probably not for you. Reed’s production at times goes too far over the top (the ballet Hustle, for example) and the humor is a balance of silly and stupid. But if you’re looking for some light fun in a pastoral setting (the theater is in an 1840s grist mill), Hedgerow’s Comrade is a breezy way to spend a hot summer afternoon or evening.
Catch Me, Comrade
Through Sept. 12.
64 Rose Valley Rd.