You’d guess from this play’s ironic title that “Out of Order” has something to do with jurisprudence or a governing body. In this case you’d choose government, for this British import by British playwright (and producer, director, and actor) Ray Cooneyis set against the background of Parliament. Universally recognized as a master of farce, Cooney is well-deserving of the title. His plays have been translated into 40 languages. His “Run for Your Wife” became the longest-running play on London’s West End. Off-Broadstreet theatergoers will remember the theater’s recent production of his hilarious “Caught in the Net.” “Out of Order” is even more uproarious, if that is possible.
The entire play is set in Suite 648 of the Westminster Hotel in London and takes place at about 8:30 p.m. and soon after on one September evening. The hallmark of farce — like many great farces — is slamming doors, although here they are less important than what is hidden behind one of the three doors. (And these doors are not just slammed or, better, hastily shut; sometimes, in the case of the closet door, they swing out.) When a character later hides in the closet it prompts another character’s laugh line: “What has he been doing?” “Coming out of the closet.” But even hiding behind the two doors in the suite, and the third, a closet, is less important to the plot than a dropping window.
While all the characters are fictional, the play is pegged to reality and the present by the mentions of British prime minister Tony Blair.
The play is about the planned extramarital sexual escapades of the smooth, dominant, confident, glib Richard Willey (Tom Orr), junior minister and member of Parliament, who confers numerous and shifting identities on the other characters. Willey manipulates the others, living or otherwise, like a ringmaster. This night he has set up an assignation with Jane Worthington (Rebekah Shearn). Willey belongs to Blair’s party while Worthington is secretary to an opposition member of Parliament. Both are married. Willey (read: wily) knows that a discovery of his plans would be politically ruinous.
The play opens with Willey on the telephone lying to his wife that he’ll be in an all-night session of Parliament. From there on, anything that could go wrong does. George Pigden (Patrick Andrae), Willey’s Parliamentary Personal Secretary (PPS), whom he has summarily sent for, is an obliging, obedient man, unmarried, tied to his mother, and behaves as Willey orders.
The play is so complicated it is confusing, which is part of the fun. The play becomes so tangled and unbelievably ridiculous that you can lose track of who is supposed to be who at the moment. Worthington sees and is seen by her husband, Ronnie (Dave Frank). Soon Ronnie, with his distinctive British regional accent, appears. He is very angry, the only character who is. Gladys (Susan Fowler), Pigden’s mother’s nurse, appearing later, chides Pigden for something he isn’t but allegedly is.
Robert Thick designed the production and does his usual expert job of directing. The show is so fast-paced that you are carried along without thinking, which, of course, is the idea. In farces timing is all, and here it is impeccable. Ann Raymond’s remarkable costumes win special notice. First notice goes to the simple rose pink dress on the slim and lovely Jane Worthington, the would-be adulteress. Cooney uses everything: the dress later triggers humor and punning. Add the more appropriately mature suit and hat on the unexpected and so plot-thickening Pamela (Christy McCall, Willey’s stylist wife). There is also the hotel manager (Curtis Kaine) in handsome formal wear.
Not only is quick hiding behind doors part of the plot, but the play’s flow of clever, funny lines keeps the audience laughing. The acting of all ten characters is excellent. All the characters are well defined and developed. The tip-taking waiter (John Anastasio), willing accomplice, for enough money, to the demanding shenanigans, adds to the fun. Frequently going in and out, he also does a comic turn with the pink dress, and wields a mean wheelchair.
“Out of Order” is hugely entertaining, packed with laughter; fast, clever, funny lines; multiple and changing identities; brothers who don’t exist; ribald, passionate kisses; and a married couple that isn’t. Like a ringmaster Richard Willey masterminds all. Over-full and ridiculous, yes. Confusing? You bet. Pick your words, but see this play.
“Out of Order,” through Sunday, June 25, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Ray Cooney’s British farce about a junior minister and a secretary for the opposition. $25.25. 609-466-2766