"Run For Your Wife" is what is known in the trade as an Audience Show.
What this means is that it is so witless and inane that no self-respecting critic can possibly endorse it, but audiences enjoy it tremendously.
"Run For Your Wife" has the level of taste and humor of, say, Benny Hill or "Hee Haw." The point is that these you can get at home for free. Whether you want to pay Broadway prices for such humor is another matter.
"Run" is about a taxi driver who has two wives. He keeps to a rigid schedule, allowing him a reasonable amount of time with each wife. His double life is threatened when he is injured in a street incident and the police have to investigate him.
Farce begins in the real world and proceeds by slightly askew bits of logic into a daffy realm of its own. "Run" is unsatisfying because it never proceeds far enough. It's too farfetched to happen in a real setting and not farfetched enough to qualify as genuine farce. It's somewhere in the middle, like a gelatin mold that won't set.
Playwright-director-star Ray Cooney's humor runs toward musty sexual innuendo. When a detective, for example, figures out the cabby's complex living arrangements, the driver says all he wants is "peace and quiet." The cop's reply is, "I reckon you've got some little piece here you want to keep quiet."
Broadway used to have its own comedies that capitalized on people's uneasiness about sex. Presumably the Sexual Revolution put an end to such nervous humor. It apparently bypassed the people chortling around me.
Much of the second act is devoted to coy jokes about homosexuals. The humor is as offensive as it is stale.
The cast handles the stupid script with keen professionalism, though the twto women, Hilary Labow and Kay Walbye, have to rely on a lot of hysterical behavior to make it work. Paxton Whitehead brings great panache to the particularly ghastly shtik he must perform.
The best work is done by two actors from London, Gareth Hunt and Dennis Ramsden, as two detectives. They do their chores with remarkable ease and aplomb.
As a performer, Cooney seems to have a gift for making vulgarity bland. He directs his work with flair. His charms as a writer and actor totally elude me.
First a warning: This review may be injurious to some playgoers' pleasure.
Ray Cooney's fantastically popular London farce "Run For Your Wife" opened at the Virginia Theater last night and, at the final preview I attended, it was greeted by the audience with virtually continuous and obviously genuine laughter, ranging from chuckles to chortles, from giggles to guffaws, from belly-laughs to sniggers.
I was not particularly amused by it, but I should confess to a prejudice against this kind of post-war British farce - what is often called the "Whitehall" farce, in recognition of the theater where it originated and first flourished, Brian Rix's Whitehall Theater.
How prejudiced am I? Well, "Run for Your Wife" has been running in London (now it's actually moved to its spiritual home, that Whitehall Theater!) for more than 2,500 performances.
During all that time, although I go play-visiting in London two or three times a year, I have never troubled to see it. That prejudiced, or rather that totally disinterested.
I have another difficulty with "Run for Your Wife." There is in British music-hall humor - from which this kind of farce stems - a certain, some would say robust, smuttiness that has always left me, as well as many averagely sensitive people in Britain, uncomfortable.
Certainly I would go to the stake (or nearby) for people's right to be as smutty as they like - but these jokes, whether they are ethnic, racist, sexist or, as here, wildly homophobic, make me first uneasy and then angry. Other people are obviously less queasy.
Now that you know where I stand, let me say that "Run for Your Wife," which has been staged with frenetically unavailing energy by Cooney himself, seems to be an unusually feeble example of a genre scarcely notable for its strength.
This tall story of a bigamous taxi driver (Cooney himself in the non-performance of this or many a year) and his machinations to avoid discovery by the police (Gareth Hunt and Denis Ramsden) and his wives (Hilary Labow and Kay Walbye, who outvie each other in blandness), with his madly accumulating pile of lies helped along by his crony (a quite wonderful Paxton Whitehead) lacks likelihood.
Or rather, it lacks the precious possibility of likelihood. A classic farce - by, say, Feydeau, or even Ben Travers - moves with the inevitable grandeur of a man in a top hat slowly slipping on a banana skin. Here the premises of the joke are ramshackle, its convolution arbitrary and its conclusion quite remarkably inconclusive.
The results are shabby, with the actors busting a gut for laughs, rather like a TV sitcom going down for the third time without a script.
The one originality of Cooney's contemptible little play is a device, presumably borrowed from the vastly inventive Alan Ayckbourn, of having the play's action take place, at times simultaneously, in two different apartments roughly represented by the same miserably suburban stage set.
I would like to say that it is at least well acted, but this production from Cooney's own London institution "The Theatre of Comedy" (an organization that does a lot of good work in the London theater) doesn't even seem to have the conviction of its own courage.
Having been brave enough to bring such a grubbily authentic British farce to Broadway - not traditionally hospitable to such fare - it doesn't bring it off with any particular flourish.
One terrible liability of the evening is the truly awful performance of Cooney himself: he seems to confuse acting with walking, and limpingly lumbers through the play with a perpetual grimace of shock on his naturally inexpressive features.
England has in this century alone produced some great farceurs, from Aldwych to the team of Ralph Lynn, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare onwards, but in such company Cooney is less than a rabbit.
The one first-rate performance comes from Whitehead (a British-born American performer) who mugs outrageously, at one point leaps onto a couch with a dexterity that recalled Michael Crawford in his farcical prime, and generally enters into the spirit of the thing with more spirit than the thing deserves.
For the rest: Everyone had a terrible time - except, it seems, the audience!
Every season, at least one British farce takes a long lease on a West End theater under a marquee festooned with effusive comments (''I loved it!'' Daily Mail). One can tell almost everything about the plays from the apparently interchangeable titles: ''No Sex Please, We're British,'' ''Not Now, Darling,'' ''Move Over, Mrs. Markham'' and ''Run for Your Wife!'' The last three were written or co-written by Ray Cooney.
Last night, ''Run for Your Wife!'' opened at the Virginia Theater, in a production directed by Mr. Cooney heading a cast composed primarily of English actors. This is the show as tourists might see it in London (the original production has just passed its 2,500th performance in the West End). On Broadway, ''Run for Your Wife!'' puts America's fondness for British comedy to a stress test.
Accepting the ground rules for allowable contrivances in farce, the play is still burdened with blind alleys, limp jokes, forced puns and troubled entendres. Even the four doors on stage are not used to farcical advantage; they are locked or blocked rather than slammed.
In this comedy about bigamy, a dull man turns out to have a hyperactive romantic life. That is the beginning and the slowly approached end of the evening's tomfoolery. John Smith, a London taxi driver (played by Mr. Cooney), maintains two separate households, one in Wimbledon, the other a few minutes away in Streatham. Because of an accident too complicated to explain, his worlds collide, and the police are called in to investigate.
With increasing ineptitude, the taxi driver tries to keep one wife from learning about the other. To extend his comedy, Mr. Cooney uses every subterfuge in the joke book, including the pretense of his being homosexual. Whenever possible, the play makes fun of stereotypes (dumb cops, swishy gays and prefeminist women who think only of getting their man into bed).
The central idea has comic possibilities, as was proved years ago in the Alec Guinness movie ''The Captain's Paradise,'' but Mr. Cooney's play founders while rushing between ports. The sole attempt at ingenuity is to have both homes on stage at the same time, so we see the wives simultaneously though they remain invisible to each other. Alan Ayckbourn used this device with panache in ''How the Other Half Loves.'' Mr. Cooney uses it inattentively. The double occupancy comes and goes at whim.
To complicate the plot, almost everyone is mistaken for someone else, one wife for a nun, the other for a transvestite, and that leads to two more subjects for ridicule. Sex appears to be on everyone's mind, though there is an ingenuousness in that department. Much of the confusion derives from the cute terms of endearment characters use for their mates. It does not pay to ask questions - to wonder why the two policemen are so incredibly gullible, and why they are devoting so much time to a minor case, or what the two attractive women see in the colorless cabdriver.
The play might have been enlivened in performance - as is certainly the case with that other new farce, Ken Ludwig's ''Lend Me a Tenor'' - but, with one exception, the acting is as ordinary as John Smith is supposed to be. Because the cabdriver has suffered a blow to his head, Mr. Cooney has to walk around in a daze, which is no excuse for his lack of expression.
It has often been said that the key to comedy is to play it for its reality, and some of the actors seem to take that advice - to no avail, because there is scant comedy to begin with. Faced with an errant husband, Kay Walbye (as the Wimbledon wife) comes close to hysteria. Her Streatham counterpart, Hilary Labow, is simply treated as decor, and the two police sergeants, Gareth Hunt and Dennis Ramsden, fade to blandness.
Paxton Whitehead, as the hero's friend who unwittingly becomes his accomplice, is the only actor able to exercise a sustained comedic impulse (although Gavin Reed is effective at conjuring comic cliches). With the look of a benign giraffe, Mr. Whitehead stumbles through the two apartments and the obstacles of the plot.
Quick on the double take and even quicker on the response, he is an agile physical comedian. With the unexpected arrival of the police, he dives for cover behind a couch and emerges with a wastebasket over his head. This, as it turns out, is one of the show's more risible moments, which should say something about the quality of the humor.
In tune with his writing, Mr. Cooney's staging is mechanical, as characters watch one another watching. As designed by Michael Anania, both homes could stand refurbishing. As a playwright, Mr. Cooney carries on a tradition created in the 1950's by Brian Rix. Since that time, there has been a revolution - and a revitalization - in British comedy on stage and in movies and television, led by Joe Orton, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and the members of the Monty Python troupe, among others. In contrast, ''Run for Your Wife!'' aspires to mediocrity and achieves it.