Fort Worth — Stand clear of the swinging doors, folks, there’s a heaping helping of farce coming through at Circle Theatre, whose lively production of the Canadian comedy Too Many Cooks is loaded with funny bits delivered by chefs, gangsters, rum-runners and yes, a Mountie.
Good farce isn’t for sissies. Do it right, and it’s the Kilgore Rangerettes of stage comedy, a precision drill team exquisitely in sync, all fancy moves and high kicks—and though it looks like everyone’s going to crash together, somehow they don’t. Bobble the timing, and you lose the fascination of the thing. Farce done badly is merely…annoying.
Happily for us, director Robin Armstrong (Bach at Leipzig, Boeing-Boeing at Circle) and a crack cast have the split-second timing down pat in Too Many Cooks, set in 1930s Prohibition-era Canada. Yes, Canada did have Prohibition, of a sort—though it takes a page in the program to describe how different the laws were up yonder. Written by actor-playwrights Douglas E. Hughes and Marcia Kash, who’ve been a team for more than 20 years, it’s infused with an actor’s practical sense of how to be wacky and silly onstage—but still smart.
Nice guy Irving Bubbalowe (Randy Pearlman) is taking over his Aunt Agatha’s small hotel in Niagara Falls, Ontario, helped by daughter Honey (Jessi Little). It’s opening night at the restaurant, and Bubbalowe is waiting on pins and needles for the arrival of his celebrity hire, a famous French chef who’s also an opera singer—food and floor show in one. Questions come thick and fast: Why is this top chef willing to leave Toronto for a job in a backwater bistro—and will he make it in time to cook dinner? What’s really in the 500 cases of “pea soup” deliveryman Mickey (Christopher Curtis) is stockpiling in the cellar? What’s up with the Chicago gangsters in the bar (David H.M. Lambert and Shane Strawbridge)—and why can’t the harried Bubbalowe get rid of job-hunting Frank (Eric Dobbins), eagle-eyed Constable Effing (Brad Stephens) and suspicious Miss Snook of Canadian immigration (Morgan McClure)?
Before this night is finished, Bubbalowe is going to have that “my goose is cooked” feeling come over him again and again. The fancy chef is missing, the guys from Chicago are hot on his trail, the Mountie is sure he’s spiking the punch with illegal hooch, and Honey has persuaded traveling guy Frank to pretend he’s (aw, haw, haw) a French kitchen wizard.
Pearlman has a hand-wringing “oh, dear” manner reminiscent of a fine ‘40s character actor—and he exhibits great comic control, very gradually bringing the character to a panicky boil as events overwhelm him. Lambert and Strawbridge are a funny pair of tough guys (hilariously light on their feet at times), and they hang on to those Runyon-esque accents admirably. As the whiskey-running Mickey, Curtis is cheerfully criminal in the first scenes, and just as cheerfully lost-in-space later on.
Stephens and McClure both play such Dudley Do-Right straight arrows that when they finally crack—even a little—it’s fun to see. Dobbins and Little, as quick-thinking Frank and Honey, are a terrific tag team, switching accents (and religions!), adding costume bits, and inhabiting a whole series of fake characters they cook up in the heat of the moment. One way or another, these two are planning to make it out alive.
Every piece of Clare Floyd DeVries’ set is right: this is a small, old-fashioned hotel trying to impress with a few Art Deco touches. A radio, Victrola and square black telephone are among Meredith Hinton’s good prop finds, and costumes by director Armstrong are nicely period—especially Miss Snook’s slouchy hat and gangster “Noodles” red pocket square and striped suit. Everything onstage gets a workout—not just the swinging doors, but a punchbowl, a fruit basket, a closet, and especially the elaborate wooden bar, endlessly circled by desperate characters—creeping, hiding, ducking, fainting, trying hard not to be noticed. And sound designer Lambert’s tinkling piano standards—Cole Porter and such—are on target as well, drawing us back to that different time.
What’s best about Too Many Cooks, though, is that it is relentlessly logical. “Well, that doesn’t sound funny at all!” you might say. But sorry, you’d be wrong.
Bad farces are those where any old tall tale, any old story seems to convince the characters—while the audience is driven nuts thinking “How stupid are these people?” or “This could never happen!” In good farces, nobody gets away with anything: every hole in a story is spotted, every lie is questioned. Why is that funny? Because when the logical “hole” is pointed out, that hole must be filled right away—with something else even funnier. And Too Many Cooks has a series of those moments (Constable Effing is especially relentless) when characters poke holes in what’s happening onstage, and force the other characters to come up with ever-wilder stuff.
If you could bottle this kind of comedy, I’d take a case.