Believing that summer and farces just seem to mix well, Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater is currently presenting Derek Benfield’s “First Things First.” Benfield, a British actor and playwright who died in 2009, was a prolific author (he wrote more than 30 plays) but, for reasons that are mysterious to me, seems to be remembered more as an actor. Perhaps because he specialized in farce, Benfield was not taken seriously as a playwright. Whatever the reasons, his plays, popular during his lifetime, have continued to be produced around the world.
As Bob and Julie Thick, producers and directors at Off-Broadstreet point out, “First Things First” is not a standard door-slamming bedroom farce. Here the hero, Pete, must deal with the fact that when, after the death of his first wife and he marries a second time, he is in fact engaging in bigamy — his first wife has not, it seems, actually died. She has now reappeared, forcing Pete to figure out just how he is to extricate himself from this unlikely mess. The friend who served as best man at both of his weddings is recruited to help figure out a strategy to deal with this unexpected situation. Also present in Pete’s house is his second wife’s mother, a physician who expects something more from her daughter’s husband. Toward the end of the play, when the audience is no doubt assuming that all the wrinkles have been ironed out, an unexpected young man appears and throws all the audience’s assumptions into question.
The cast is a mix of Off-Broadstreet veterans and newcomers. Ryan Correll, one of the newcomers, plays the central character, Pete. Since Pete has caused the mess and must take the lead in straightening it out, his role requires a lot. Correll is at the beginning of his career, and his lack of experience may be exacerbated by the uncomfortable position the playwright has put him in. Why shouldn’t the character be able to explain to his first wife that he had understood that she had died while mountain climbing in Tibet and had therefore thought it was all right to marry again? After all, he and his friend George had gone to Tibet to look for her, and although we don’t know the details of their search we do know they came away with the assumption she was dead.
Pete’s second wife, Sarah, is played by Jennifer Newby, an OBT veteran, who made her debut with the company in another bedroom farce, “In One Bed and Out the Other.” Taking on the role of Sarah’s mother, Margot, is Beverly Robinovitz, who had her first Off-Broadstreet role in 1985, and she certainly appears at home playing the fierce mother-in-law. Katie Munley takes on the role of Jessica, the first wife. Munley, who has played many roles at Off-Broadstreet, also serves as house manager. She is clearly comfortable as the mountain-climbing Jessica and shows an assurance on the stage not shared by all the cast.
Alan, the young man whose unexpected appearance makes it possible to turn everything upside down, is played by Keegan McDonald, the other newcomer to Off-Broadstreet. McDonald, who is young and still studying theater, will undoubtedly become more assured with experience. Saving the best for last, the role of Pete’s friend, George, the mediator who does everything he can to try to make it possible for Pete to straighten out his messy life, is played by Barry Abramowitz. Familiar to OBT regulars, Abramowitz has appeared in many different kinds of roles in many OBT productions; most recently he was the voice of the carniverous plant in “Little Shop of Horrors.” His performance stands out without, fortunately, spoiling the effect of the perhaps less gifted rest of the cast. His reactions to new situations, his (always delayed) realizations of what he’s going to have to do to prevent a disaster — “Duh, okay” — are reflected in his large mobile face, which can telegraph to the entire audience what he has just grasped.
Bob Thick is responsible for the direction, and it’s no doubt unnecessary to point out to OBT regulars that even with a physical farce, Thick makes sure the audience can figure out what’s going on. There’s a special gift to making sure that it makes sense for the characters not to understand what’s happening while the audience does. Thick has also done the design, and, once again, the set is both attractive and accommodating. The walls of Pete and Sarah’s living room are covered with paintings, the work of Ken McIndoe, an artist who has had several shows at area venues. During intermission, the audience is able to go on stage for a closer look at the art work. The costumes, sensibly unobtrusive for this production, are by Ann Raymond.
“First Things First” is not Off-Broadstreet’s first venture into Benfield’s British farces: in January, 2010, the company put on “Bedside Manners,” an earlier Benfield farce, which also deals with marital problems and depends for its humor on symmetries. Anyone looking for an opportunity to have a laugh or two without the need for deep thought would be well-advised to head to Hopewell for Off-Broadstreet’s current summer entertainment.
"First Things First," Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, September 10. Comedy about a couple who marries, thinking the first wife is dead. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.