Anyone who thinks "Caught in the Net," the funny, clever comedy by Ray Cooney playing at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater until January 17, is going to tell a story about fishing is in the wrong era. It’s a play about the Internet (or ‘Net for short), an information resource that has become part of our lives and part of the lives of the play’s characters, most of whom first appeared in Cooney’s "Run for Your Wife."
"Run for Your Wife" is Cooney’s well-known play, which opened in London in 1983 where it played for nine years. chosen one of the best 100 plays of the 20th century. This sequel, which opened in London in 2001, shares the same characters. And they, like us, have aged some 18 years in real time. years in which net became the ‘Net.
Co-producer Robert Thick directs the show with an appropriately fast pace that keeps its characters, all played by veteran OBT actors, racing around the wide stage, arguing with broad, energetic gestures. The complicated blocking, flawlessly performed, adds to the comedy.
Cooney, a writer of farce and political farce, has been called England’s Neil Simon. His 15 plays include "Move Over Mrs. Markham," "Not Now Darling," "Out of Order," "Wife Begins at Forty," and "It Runs in the Family." One of the most widely produced living playwrights, Cooney is also an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. His works have been translated into over 40 languages.
"Run for Your Wife" tells the story of a London taxi driver, John Smith who, well, gets around. He is a bigamist who, for 18 years, has been keeping two wives, Mary and Barbara, and subsequent dual families, on opposite sides of the city.
Now, 18 years after "Wife," John Smith (played by Doug Kline) has two wives and each has a child: Mary has a teenage daughter, Vicki (Heather Diaforli), and Barbara has a teenage son, Gavin (James Fiorello). The two young people meet on the ‘Net and plan to meet in person, meanwhile discovering that, curiously, their dads have the same name, even the same middle name, and are both 53. The dad in question tries frantically to keep the young people apart, citing the usual horror stories about on-line sexual predators. Eventually his two wives also get involved in keeping their children apart, for all the same reasons.
The stage setting also contributes to the comedy. The single set comprises dual, identical apartments, one in Wimbledon, the other in Streatham. Since this is fiction, onstage characters in one place are mindless of others simultaneously onstage in another place. Adding to the fun is the near matching and simultaneous dialogue on both sides of the stage between mother and teenage child, each oblivious of the other.
The two persistent young people, both well played, are not easily put off. They are determined to meet — for purposes of romance and maybe even baby-making. (The audience recognizes the unstated, but urgent reason for preventing such a meeting.)
Smith is aided in his efforts to keep his two wives and two teenagers apart, by Stanley Gardner (N. Charles Leeder) — yes, Cooney plays with the name Gardner. And, to add to the confusion, sometimes Gardner is fondly called Uncle Stanley, sometimes "the Lodger." Gardner is privy to Smith’s bigamy and helps keep the plot roiling and the young people apart — with wrong directions to Gavin — and explanations so outrageous, they’re great fun in themselves. Meanwhile Smith is off-stage on his way from Mary’s to Barbara’s (i.e. his own two homes.)
The comedy is told from the point of view of John Smith and Gardner. As audience members we know — and learn — only what they know. It is fun enough.
Like all farces, the comedy is situational and full of ringing cell phones, doorbells, multiple doors (often locked, with the incarcerated occupants pounding to get out), mistaken identities, witty dialogue, masked characters, and a swimming costume.
"Net" is no respecter of political correctness and includes jokes about blindness, senility, homosexuality (especially Gardner’s: he is said to have a "sexual problem"). But neither is heterosexuality neglected. Gardner’s aged father (Scott Hubscher), who thinks Mary and John’s apartment is a hotel, is ready, with comic gesturing, to grope a big-breasted Barbara Smith (Diane Gilch) who has come to Wimbledon. The many speech and sight (and costume) gags and attempts to hide the dual dad’s face keep the audience laughing.
We did find Terri Sturtevant’s portrayal of Mary Smith too shrill in Act I, giving the character little room in which to grow into her mad, wildness in Act 2. And in the second of two acts, the comic turns began to be repetitive. The plot takes a few unexpected turns, but you will have to see the play to find out what they are. Exit laughing.
Caught in the Net, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. $22.50 & $24. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through Saturday, January 17. Desserts, coffee, and tea served beginning one hour before curtain time.