As a lifelong Anglophile, it is with the deepest reluctance that I confess, at this critical moment for the Anglo-American alliance, that I did not find the much-heralded "The Play What I Wrote" very funny. The toast of London for more than a year, "Play" was written by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl as a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, a British comedy team who had a weekly TV viewership of 25 million, or nearly half the British population, during the '70s. The first question that arises is, given how much British comedy does come to America, why did we never get Morecambe and Wise? My hunch is that there are some British tastes, like blancmange or steak and kidney pie, that don't survive the trans-Atlantic voyage. Sensible people must have realized that Morecambe and Wise might be one of them. If "Play" is an accurate approximation of their humor, they make Benny Hill look like Noel Coward. And while we did take to Hill, "Play" may disprove H.L. Mencken's remark that no one loses money underestimating the taste of the American public. If we actually had many years of enjoying Morecambe and Wise as a reference point, the play might have more resonance. As it is, it is hard to see what made their brand of low humor distinctive. The premise of "Play" is that McColl wants to be a playwright. He has written a drama about the French Revolution called "The Scarlet Pimple."
Foley wants him to abandon this folly and return to their act. Foley and McColl perform the material at such hysterical levels that you sense their own desperation. I did not see the show in London but I assume some jokes have been added for our benefit, like a line where McColl says of his play, "This is my 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' - I'm going to be the next Shaquille O'Neal."Every night a Mystery Guest shows up for the second act. During previews they included Nathan Lane, Roger Moore, Zoe Caldwell and Liam Neeson. Saturday night it was Kevin Kline. Since Mike Nichols (constantly referred to in the script as Mike Tickles - yock, yock) is one of the producers, the guests might well be more interesting than the show itself. Kline had a restraint that made him the most enjoyable part of the evening, except for Toby Jones, who plays a variety of parts (including, during the Kline sequence, Patsy Cline) with great skill and charm. Heaven knows we all need laughter these days, but "Play" seemed far too strained to provide it, even for someone who thought the "Carry On" movies were funny.
There is more than the Atlantic separating British and American stage humor. For one thing our allies tend to be physical in their theater jokes, while we tend to be more verbal.
If you like, our humor is more Jewish. Some Brit master clowns - a Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel - can effortlessly bridge the gap. But it's not easy.
"The Play What I Wrote," a hit London comedy almost as much concocted as written, by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben, opened at the Lyceum on Saturday night, full of belly-laughs, guts (we would call it chutzpah) and wild, wild hope.
It is crazy, sweet, dangerously funny, and so English you could serve it up with crumpets and strawberry jam for afternoon tea.
It stars two superb, exquisite, deft and daft comedians, McColl and Foley themselves, together with a third little guy Toby Jones, who, in his quiet weird way, is just as funny as the other two, and - here's a gimmick - every night a "mystery celebrity guest star."
The show is a homage to two enormously popular but dead British vaudeville and TV comedians, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, both enormously unknown this side of the Atlantic.
As what I had seen in Britain of Morecambe and Wise had left me cordially indifferent, when I first saw "The Play What I Wrote" in London, I approached it with all the wariness of a stooge gazing at a custard pie.
I had quite forgotten about the sheer manic genius of Foley and McColl - in my book markedly superior comics to Morecambe and Wise themselves - last seen off-Broadway four years ago in the nuttily amazing "Do You Come Here Often?"
This new venture, staged by classicist Kenneth Branagh with perfect aplomb and clearly a lovely feel for the material, is a mini-masterpiece of comic invention, an apotheosis of that strange theatrical monster, the double act.
The premise of the premise (if you don't see what I mean, wait) is that Hamish wants to break up his act with Sean and become a serious playwright, and see his play "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple," in the West End and on Broadway.
But the real premise is to rework some of the old Morecambe and Wise routines (such as their in-England-famous getting up in the morning bit), to which end they have the collaboration of Braben, M & W's former scriptwriter, and then to give the whole show, including the spoof play, F & M's own antic slant.
The lead American producer, Mike Nichols, who himself knows a thing or two about comedy, has presumably helped tweak the show a bit for its trans-Atlantic transfer - although for the life of me I'm not quite sure where - and it now emerges as quite the silliest and funniest show on Broadway.
Foley is the outrageous one with the rubbery legs who does funny-walks so silly that they make Monty Python seem positively rheumatic, McColl is the straight guy with the pained, rubbery grimaces, and as a light-as-air pair they are priceless. And little protean Jones is damned good as well.
As for the "mystery guest" you have to pay your money and take your chance. In previews, audiences have been treated to Roger Moore, Liam Neeson, Zoe Caldwell and Nathan Lane.
On Saturday night we had a perfectly wonderful, properly pompous, handsomely aggrieved and stiffly deadpanned Kevin Kline, but I am sure that whoever risks taking on the role will be worth seeing.
Personally, I would be happy to see guest star after guest star, night after night, just as long as Foley, McColl and Jones (for here's a double act threatening to go triple) are there to make me giggle like a gurgling drain.
The whole thing is -- let's face it -- too silly for words. So readers should be advised that any descriptions that follow will be to some degree inadequate in capturing the full ecstatic idiocy of ''The Play What I Wrote,'' the very British import of a comedy revue, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater.
Still, it seems safe to say that there isn't a show on Broadway at the moment that's dopier, more obvious or more inane than this evening of song, dance, willfully bad jokes and rudimentary sight gags from the English comedy team of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. Which may be, if you think about it, exactly what you're hungering for at a moment when the world is seeming like a lower tier of Dante's inferno.
I first saw ''The Play What I Wrote'' last year in London, where it had developed a dementedly worshipful cult, and the wisdom of bringing it to New York seemed suspect. The show, after all, is inspired by the comic stylings (to use an inappropriately grand phrase) of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who ruled British television with their music-hall flavored variety shows in the 1960's and 70's, but whose names have less recognition value in the United States than those of Queen Elizabeth's corgis.
Granted, I kept hearing from Americans who said they had seen and liked the show in London. But I took that as the usual tourist's pursuit of things authentically British, like eating spotted dick or attending a cricket match. And it didn't seem very auspicious that advance ads for the New York production blurbed, of all people, Prince Charles, saying how funny it was, which is a bit like having Hulk Hogan endorsing a hairdresser. Still, stand in the lobby of the Lyceum some night, shortly after the curtain rises on ''The Play What I Wrote,'' which has been only slightly retailored for New York audiences, and you'll hear a kind of group choking sound, which segues into something more helplessly full-throated. That's the noise of people resisting and then giving in to a spectacle that they can't quite believe they are finding so funny.
Like much gut-level comedy, ''The Play What I Wrote'' -- which is directed by Kenneth Branagh (yep, the Shakespearean actor) -- is rooted in the unlikely poetry of ineptitude. The appeal of the production, which was written by Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley with Eddie Braben, is based on the assumed lack of talent of its participants. When at one point a giant, circus-style poster unfurls over the stage, advertising the act of Foley and McColl, the best it can offer by way of critical endorsement are phrases like ''usually competent'' and ''I didn't mind it.''
And those are descriptions of Foley and McColl doing what they do best. Consider, then, that the excuse of a plot for ''The Play What I Wrote'' has Mr. McColl earnestly longing to produce his new historical drama entitled (groan) ''The Scarlet Pimple.'' Mr. Foley, on the other hand, wants to bring the team's traditional comedy act to Broadway.
So he recruits a friend, an electrician named Arthur (Toby Jones), to trick Mr. McColl into sticking with the old act. This involves Arthur's impersonating show business eminences like Daryl Hannah and Mike Nichols (who is indeed one of the show's producers), here renamed Mike Tickles, which inevitably leads to much giggly frisking.
And that, in terms of plot, is all there is to this enterprise, except that Mr. McColl's really terrible play does wind up being performed, with the help of a famous mystery guest star. At the critic's preview I attended, that was Kevin Kline (or Sir Kevin, as Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley insist on calling him), who was so good at acting badly that I forgot entirely that I was looking over the head of another (very tall) Oscar-winning star, Nicole Kidman, who was seated two rows in front of me.
The show's celebrity climax is preceded by a fast and furious succession of vaudevillian patter routines, artfully spastic soft-shoe numbers, songs punctuated by pratfalls and repeated bits of comic business so frantic they give new credence to the term ''running gags.'' I'll cite one representative joke with the understanding that, as they say, you really had to be there.
Mr. Foley to Mr. McColl: ''You want to be the next Eugene O'Flynn.'' Mr. McColl, correcting Mr. Foley: ''Neill.'' So Mr. Foley obligingly kneels and repeats, ''You want to be the next Eugene O'Flynn.''
The setting for such, er, sophisticated exchanges is as lavish as anything a British lad with Broadway dreams could hope for. The set and costume designer Alice Power has come up with, among other things, an illuminated staircase fit for Astaire and Rogers. (The impeccably out-of-sync choreography is by Irving Davies and Heather Cornell.)
There's also a sylvan garden out of a Jessie Matthews musical for romantic trysting (for Mr. Jones, dressed up as Ms. Hannah, and Mr. McColl) and potted plants that grow instantly into skyscraping rubber palms for when the boys don Carmen Miranda headdresses. And you can't help loving that gargantuan Thurberesque dog puppet.
But all this is merely an ornate frame for the surgically realized doltishness of Mr. Foley and Mr. McColl, not to mention Mr. Jones, whose assets as a harmonica-playing human spark plug should not be underestimated. Mr. McColl, who has bulging Bette Davis eyes and an expression of high-strung hopefulness, is the official straight man. This means, as Mr. Foley tactfully tells him, that ''you're pompous, you're affected, you're slightly effeminate.''
Mr. McColl, in turn, describes Mr. Foley as ''funny funny,'' which translates as, ''You're bald, you're rubber-legged, you're potentially violent and you shout all the time.'' That's about as dead-on a description of this brand of comic as you're going to get, although ''rubber-legged'' doesn't begin to do justice to the balletic train wreck of a walk that Mr. Foley uses as a means of locomotion.
If such descriptions make you squirm, flinch or yawn, you might want to avoid ''The Play What I Wrote.'' But there is a strangely lyrical magic in the production's full-frontal gag-driven humor. In the show's opening number, Mr. Foley and Mr. McColl are found lying (well, standing, actually) in bed. They are crooning a little nonsense song about dreaming that they're awake, singing ''a ridiculous song about a song about a dream,'' which is in turn about a joke.
This ditty recalls Puck's final speech in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' in which he explains that all the bizarre goings-on that have happened before have indeed been ''no more yielding but a dream.'' At a time when the world seems lost in a collective nightmare, there's much to be said for sinking into a dream in which people behave badly, even violently, but still get up grinning after they fall down.
One of the ads for "The Play What I Wrote" alleges that "His Royal Highness, Prince Charles," exclaimed after seeing the British music-hall homage and spoof, "What a joy it was to be able to laugh until one ached!"
Somewhat down the endorsement food chain is the blurb - "I didn't mind it!" - printed on a cartoon curtain at the Lyceum Theatre, where Sean Foley and Hamish McColl opened their broad, manic, persistently good-natured English hit last night.
This is where I quote my Samuel Beckett: I can't go on. I'll go on. In other words, I am so sorry. But this tradition of broad English physical comedy is a language I simply do not speak.
I realize that this expert tribute to old vaudeville won the Olivier Award for best comedy in a production directed by no less an unlikely luminary than Kenneth Branagh and has been co-produced for Broadway by no less a prince of humor than Mike Nichols.
I understand that the project's gimmick, a Mystery Guest Star at every performance, attracted such bold-face celebs as Ralph Fiennes, Jerry Hall and Sting on the West End. Liam Neeson, Nathan Lane, Roger Moore and Zoe Caldwell have already played the fools during Broadway previews. Kevin Kline was the Mystery Guest Star at last night's opening and at the preview what I saw.
Humor is a funny thing. Or not. Suffice it to say that, all around me, people seemed to be having a swell time. Wish I were there.
These are extremely adept fellows, closer in spirit to Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello than to the Marx Brothers - whose head trips I do get. Early in the evening, hopes were raised that this would be inspired silliness in the spirit of the brilliant Monty Python. But soon, it became clear the intentions leaned more toward the silly than the inspired.
For more than 15 years, Foley and McColl have been their own double act. With "The Play What I Wrote," they have created a tribute to a famous British double act, Morecambe and Wise, who had a huge TV series in the '70s. Eddie Braben, one of that show's writers, is listed here as a co-author. Nichols helped translate some of the English references.
The plot, such as it is, is a sketch-within-a-sketch. McColl, the one with eyes like bull's-eye targets, has tired of being the straight man for Foley. McColl wants to write tragic plays - that is, as Foley explains, he "wants to be the next Shaquille O'Neill." The play what he wwrote is a drama of the French Revolution, "A Tight Squeeze for tlie Scarlet Pimple." The Mystery Guest Star gets to play both the Conte de Toblerone, (unpronounceable in a family newspaper) and, a Kline speciality, the hambone thespian.
But Foley - a tall fellow with strange things happening to the limbs below his elbows and knees - wants McColl to keep doing their act. He lies and tells his partner that the big American producer, Mike Tickles (laugh, please, when he's tickled), wants to do the play in a theater owned by a fellow very much like a certain Broadway theater owner. These and all other characters are played with a Humpty-Dumpty aplomb and lack of shame by the amusing Toby Jones, whose main role is Arthur, who wants to play his harmonica on Broadway, a dream of his strange, sick old mother (repetitive flashback, please).
Thus, we have breathless and beautifully timed foolishness from the play, from the double-act's repertory, and from scenes of the men struggling about which scenes to do. There is also sweet singing and very strange, virtuosic if wearying dancing - choreographed by Irving Davies and Heather Cornell. The sets, by Alice Power, are fanciful and lovely, especially a flashback in which the men swim backward into theatrical ether to a crucial meeting in their career.
There is much tricky and geeky hopping, squirming and scampering, some endearing use of stuffed body parts and plenty of bad puns. One nice joke involves humor that's" brave beyond words." Maybe this is it. Maybe not.
Any regular theatergoer has to love a play that opens with the owner of a loudly ringing cell phone getting shot through the back with an arrow.
Not all the lewd and wacky gags in The Play What I Wrote, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, are as instantly appealing. Luckily, there are so many of them that the law of averages guarantees a good time.
Previously an Olivier Award-winning hit in London, Play is the naughty brainchild of Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, a comedy duo inspired by U.K. TV comics Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.
For Yanks, the broad and distinctly British slapstick humor that McColl and Foley have crafted with collaborating writer Eddie Braben may at times bring to mind the more iconic import Benny Hill. But Play also operates on the principle that has driven popular American films such as Airplane! and the Austin Powers series: Throw enough jokes at the wall, and the ones that stick will redeem the ones that don't.
Directed with breezy wit by Kenneth Branagh, Play develops from the premise that Foley and McColl's partnership is threatened by the latter's ambition to mount his original French Revolution-based drama, A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple, on Broadway. Accordingly, the script for Play has been adapted slightly to include references familiar to Americans, and particularly to New Yorkers and theater fans.
For example, as Foley's hapless friend Arthur, droll supporting actor Toby Jones attempts to fool McColl with guises ranging from the fictional theater impresario Mike Tickles to actress Darryl Hannah and Shubert Organization head Gerald Schoenfeld, who is parodied as a whining, hysterical rube.
Play also features a nightly surprise celebrity guest, whom the creators work into the plot in a way that strives to ensure maximum embarrassment. At the preview I attended, the willing victim was Kevin Kline, whose flair for both outrageous and deadpan humor was perfectly suited to material that required him to play the effete thespian one moment, then romp around in a hoop skirt and wig the next.
Not that the show's stars are easily upstaged. The sharp, lanky Foley is an ideal foil and antagonist to the breathless, mock-affected McColl, and their rivalrous yet co-dependent relationship spawns endless physical, sexual and scatological pranks. Suffice to say that if you blanch at the thought of men referring to or falling on body parts that lie below the waist, this probably isn't your cup of tea.
But there also is something poignant about McColl and Foley's reluctant rapport and the bliss they find in entertaining. In Bring Me Sunshine, one of several cheeky musical numbers, they sing, "Bring me laughter/All the while/In this world where we live/There should be more happiness."
It's a sentiment that makes the giddy goofiness in Play seem more profound, especially in these times.
Judging from the barrage of nerve-rattling guffaws, uncontrollable titters and hysterical snorts emanating from the man sitting directly behind this viewer, the producers and creators of London's "The Play What I Wrote" need not worry that the show's brand of humor is the kind of thing what Americans won't get. Surely there are plenty of Yanks ready to embrace the gleefully lowbrow antics of the show's daffy, energetic stars, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl.
Right-oh, but don't call me Shirley.
Yes, folks, it's that kind of a show -- the kind what some will find to be inspired silliness, others tedious juvenility. To this viewer, who was driven to relocate after intermission in a state of theatrical shellshock, it was a disconcerting mixture of both, practically at the same time.
Originally devised by Foley and McColl, a British comic double-act, as a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, a more famous British comic double-act that made it big on the telly in the '70s, the show presents these loving partners at supposed cross purposes. (The overt Morecambe and Wise references have been weeded out for U.S. consumption.)
The impish Hamish thinks he's come to Broadway to star in his great dramatic masterpiece, "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple" (tee hee). But Sean, a deceptively regular-looking bloke with rubber limbs, has secretly made a deal with bigshot producer Mike Tickles (yock) to substitute the team's music-hall schtick for Hamish's swashbuckling epic. (Mike Nichols is, in fact, one of the show's producers.)
The tug of war between the two finds Hamish frantically trying to proceed with his masterpiece, set in 18th century Paris ("I am France," he dramatically intones, wrapped in a flag, a tiny Eiffel Tower atop his head, "and parts of me are revolting"), despite the fact that the announced star, Sir Ian McKellen, is nowhere to be found. Foley keeps luring him back to their more jovially puerile antics. He has coerced their cohort Arthur (Toby Jones) into joining in the ruse, promising him a chance to fulfill his great dream (actually his mum's, described in a series of elaborate asides) to play the harmonica on Broadway.
But such a sober description doesn't come close to evoking the evening's ingratiating, self-consciously idiotic spirit. There are more bad puns than you'll find in, uh, a Mel Brooks musical, and endless sexual double entendres. Lest we forget the show's British origins, there are the inevitable fart jokes and gay jokes, and egregiously bad drag (the squat, splendidly talented but not exactly androgynous Jones masquerading as Daryl Hannah). Most of it is so neatly stitched together by the performers (and co-author Eddie Braben, an actual vet of Morecambe and Wise shows), and dependent on their exuberant, buffoonish delivery, that it's impossible to give coherent examples. But here's a representative bit of shtick, from a restaurant scene: "What are you doing?" "Waiting." "Why are you waiting?" "I'm a waiter." "Why don't you serve us?" "I'm a dumb waiter."
The physical humor is equally low-down, and similarly derived from routines that might be called either classic or moldy (someone gets a pie in the face). Foley does a lot of silly walks, frugging his way off and onstage for no apparent reason. McColl, possessed of a naturally funny mug, with bug eyes and buggier ears, wears an endearing look of beatific stupefaction for half of the evening, a piteously mournful one at other times, when he succumbs to fits of despair at the thought that it's only Sean who's the funny one. (Arthur tells him his specialty is "the most sophisticated laugh of all. The inaudible laugh.") They all sing and dance, badly of course, and close act one with an indescribable extravaganza featuring massive Carmen Miranda headdresses. Ask not why.
Act two brings the show's crowning bit of japery. Each show features a "mystery guest," a celebrity of some renown. Performers in the London production have run the gamut from Ralph Fiennes to Jerry Hall to Sting to Ewan McGregor to -- whoops! -- Sir Ian himself. Nathan Lane and Liam Neeson have already capered across the Lyceum stage in French Revolutionary drag.
At the reviewed performance, Kevin Kline did the honors, or had them done unto him. "I've been wearing your underwear for years," Sean effuses. Whipping out a pair, he adds, "In fact, it's time you had them back." (Meanwhile, Arthur, who thinks he's supposed to play Kevin Kline, comes on as Patsy Cline.) Kline's game mock-seriousness is pretty endearing, even if, overall, the gimmick might actually work better with a less assured stage performer. But Kline's resume does occasion some good gags. When asked how he's doing, career-wise, Kline pompously says, "I've had an Oscar and two Tonys." "Your private life is your own affair," Sean retorts.
The mystery guest takes the lead role, the Conte de Toblerone, in Hamish's play, which is set in the dungeon of the Bastille. The text bears a suspicious resemblance to the rest of the evening's shtick ("Do you pine for her?" "No, I'm a deciduous man myself"), and also includes a woolly dance number that finds the skeletons of Alice Power's aptly cheesy set joining in the can-can. It evaporates after a ghastly mishap with the guillotine, and the show concludes on a pseudo-poignant note, with Sean finally convincing his partner that it's the team what's really funny, not just one of its members.
I almost forgot the best joke. Listed as director in the program is noted Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh. The juxtaposition is hard to fathom, although it confirms one's vague perceptions that highbrow Brits can have surprisingly lowbrow comic tastes. The idea is somehow absurdly appealing: One imagines Branagh wearing a fake Groucho nose throughout the rehearsal period. Let's just hope he doesn't get his genres crossed, and start playing Richard III with a hump that moves from left to right.