Farce is a delicate art form. Even when all the pieces are in place, if the timing is slightly awry or the acting not tailored to the material, the play can seem labored. Successful farce does not require the best talent, but rather the best-suited talent. It's a risky undertaking for Off-Off-Broadway, because of the limited rehearsal time and, often, actors'inexperience.
Hail to the Chef, sitcom writer Michael Dempsey's farce that is getting its New York premiere after well-received runs in Washington, D.C. and the Midwest, suffers from the malaise that separates good farces from inferior aspirants. Dempsey has all the standard farce elements down pat: off-color humor, a case of mistaken identity, characters in disguise, a set with several doors and a pun of a title-but they don't add up to a satisfying laugh.
The identifiable flaws in Hail to the Chef include running gags (another staple of farce) that aren't funny: a surgeon's "pocket scalpel" and a secretary's nervous typing tic. The fine costumes and set didn't really evoke the 1960s, and the dialogue that does date the play-comments that Star Trek and telephone answering machines "will never catch on"-is forced. The other significant problem with the play is a poorly developed main character, Eliot. He's supposed to be an upwardly mobile landscape architect, but the character is written and was played (by Richard Edward Long) more like a happy-go-lucky unemployed comedian. Neither Eliot's dedication to his career nor his affection for his wife were convincing. The most broadly drawn characters, on the other hand, elicited the strongest performances, by Kara V. Sekuler and Ray Atherton. Thirteen-year-old Jackie Angelescu showed more flair than most of her adult co-stars.
Dempsey can take credit for digging up an obscure but supposedly true tidbit from history for the basis of his comedy. Hail to the Chef takes place on October 31, 1966, the day that President Kennedy's brain-still being held as evidence in his assassination-disappeared from the National Archives. In the play, the landscape architect's social-climbing wife invites a powerful senator to dinner in the hopes that a good meal will persuade the senator to award her husband the contract to design the vice president's gardens. The affair is disrupted by the possibility that the hosts inadvertently served JFK's brain as an entree. This plot is as bawdy and contrived as any good farce; there's just a glitch somewhere in the pacing or jokes that hampered the whole thing.
(Also featuring Kate Bushmann, Michael Deep, Julie Alexander, Peter Brouwerand Anthony Bertram. Set, Patrick Mann; costumes, Steven C. Kleiser; sound, Mike Terpstra; lighting, David Castaneda.)
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Copyright 1997 Adriennne Onofri