See How They Run

The main problem with “See How They Run” at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre is the venue itself.

The Shell’s huge space is great for musicals and other large shows. It is not good, however, for small, one-room farces like “See How They Run.” The stage is simply too big. Everyone is too spread out. Instead of it taking a character three steps, for example, to run across the stage and slam a door, it takes six steps. The extra space throws off the timing, which throws off the pace, which throws off the humor.

The next big problem is the delivery. Many of the actors have adopted a flustered, stammering delivery on many of their lines, particularly as the situation within the play becomes more exasperating. This is the opposite of what farce usually needs, which is crisp, quick dialogue. You want “set-up”/”punch line,” not “set-up”/”uh-uh-uh, punch line.”

Some of the stammering may be attributed to being under-rehearsed on opening night. Much of it, however, seemed like intentional character choices.

The play, written by Phillip King and directed by Robinne Booth, is set in an English vicarage in the 1940s. Rev. Lionel Toop (Scott Healy) has a new wife, Penelope (Miriam Latour), a former actress who is not as demure as the townsfolk — particularly the prim Miss Skillon (Booth) — would like the vicar’s wife to be.

While Lionel is out one night, Penelope runs into an old friend, Clive (Doug Shattuck), now a soldier with a few hours to kill. They embark on a perfectly harmless night on the town, with Clive dressed in one of Lionel’s priest outfits to avoid being recognized as a soldier.

As you know if you have seen farces before, two men dressed in identical outfits will soon be mistaken for each other, even if they have completely different body types. (Also in farces: People can be knocked unconscious by a mere slap to the face.) Eventually, there are as many as four priest-dressed men running around the place, with a visiting bishop (Ben Wake), another vicar (Jeremy Showgren), an escaped Russian spy (Josh Curtis) and a nosy maid (Melissa A. Smith) thrown in the mix.

Miriam Latour, at the center of things as Penelope, starts out with a very natural, realistic performance. As the situation grows more bizarre, however, she becomes sillier and less believable. Still, this may be an improvement over most of the others, who start as over-acted caricatures and stay that way.

Instead of putting normal people into an outrageous situation, Booth has directed her cast to be outrageous people trapped in an outrageous situation. There is also a lot of unmotivated blocking — characters moving around as they speak without any discernible reason for it, other than to fill out that monstrous stage.

“See How They Run” can be an extremely funny play, but this production never reaches the level of mayhem it ought to.

Should you go? The laughs are few. SCERA’s outdoor season will surely get better.

The main complaint I heard about this review was that the show got much, much better after opening night. I have little sympathy for the argument that critics shouldn't come the first night: Professional theaters almost insist we review opening night. If they need an audience to work out the bugs, they have unpublicized, invitation-only previews. Of course at the SCERA, you're lucky if the set's even built by opening night, let alone if the show's ready.