Farce can be tricky to explain. It's not just a play that's really, really funny (in the same way that tragedy is not merely really, really sad). Rather, it’s a concoction of unlikely circumstances, coincidences, and desperate measures building to intertwined calamities that are -- hopefully -- really, really funny. Exhibit A: Happy Birthday by Marc Camolletti (1923-2003), adapted by Beverly Cross, done to hilarious perfection by comedy specialists 1812 Productions.
The Philadelphia area has already enjoyed professional staging of the French playwright's Boeing, Boeing at Act II Playhouse and Hedgerow Theatre, and Lantern Theater Company has announced Don't Dress for Dinner, a longtime community theater favorite, as its 2017-2018 season closer. Happy Birthday is lesser known, but no less fun.
Lust and lies
Most farces start with lust. In Happy Birthday, Bernard (Greg Wood) has invited best friend Robert (Scott Greer) to his country place for the weekend. Bernard's wife Jacqueline (Susan Riley Stevens) is thrilled, because she and Robert have been secretly carrying on. However, Bernard has invited his mistress Brigit (Suli Holum) for his own pleasure, hoping to pass her off as Robert's girlfriend. This might seem silly enough, but Camoletti throws in another Brigit (Jennifer Childs), a maid hired for the weekend -- who, of course, is mistaken for the other Brigit.
Lies always complicate a farce, and too many occur in Happy Birthday to recount here. Suffice it to say all the characters dig deeper holes for themselves with each fib. "I won't have anything to do with such a complicated tissue of lies," Robert protests, but once he's told one, he's compelled to tell a hundred more. Eventually, both characters and audience lose track of the truth, but it's all hilariously resolved.
Director Trey Lyford understands farce, making Happy Birthday not only verbally fast and fun but also physically imaginative and daring. Lance Kniskern's set, a marvel of ‘80s design excess in black, white, and red, acts as 1812's jungle gym. Greer, slimmed down from two runs in Theatre Exile's Rizzo, is particularly agile, tumbling and swimming over a long white sofa and discovering his mojo while dancing to Billy Idol's "White Wedding."
An escapist romp
We can give Camolletti a pass for using an outrageous gag -- the sudden transformation of a maid's uniform into stylish evening wear -- more than once. The trick designer Alisa Sickora Kleckner devises for Brigit's (Childs) gray uniform works brilliantly, and we'll enjoy something similar in Lantern's Don't Dress for Dinner next season. Kleckner's costumes for all the characters are witty, attractive, and faithful to the '80s.
The production starts at such a high-energy tilt that it struggles to build further without sagging a bit first, but the production is so brisk and clever, so well-tuned and seemingly effortless, it's a pleasure from beginning to end. Plus, as the greatest farceurs contrive so well, desires are satiated without anyone getting hurt or offended.
As much as our times call for political introspection and artistic activism, there's much to appreciate in an evening of undiluted fun like Happy Birthday. Who better to provide it than 1812 Productions?