BWW Review: SEE HOW THEY RUN at St. Vincent Continues a Beloved Summer Tradition
We open on an English vicarage during World War II. A military policeman comes to investigate notice of a disturbance after an escaped Nazi war criminal was noted at large. Something is wrong at the vicarage- everyone is acting strangely, and the lodgers' stories and even identities seem to shift from scene to scene. Clearly something terrible is afoot... but that's just Act 3.
Though the play's essential storyline sounds more like a mystery thriller than a feel-good comedy, Philip King's See How They Run inverts this British cozy-mystery setup by presenting the farcical events leading up to the suspenseful conclusion. Slamming doors, mistaken identity, slapstick comedy and tons of double entendres commence. Naturally, as befits the St. Vincent Summer Theatre's long local history, the annual summer farce reunites a host of Pittsburgh favorites under the direction of Gregg Brandt.
The play's central trio is unimpeachable. As the young but conservative Reverend Lionel Toop, the St. Vincent perennial Cav O'Leary brings his trademark squirmy, uncomfortable charm to the role of a stiff-upper-lip type thrust into deeply worrying circumstances. Joining him is his Into the Woods spouse, Daina Michelle Griffith, as Penelope Toop, free-spirited actress turned vicar's wife. Griffith and O'Leary have chemistry to spare, and both work admirably with one of Pittsburgh's finest comedic actors, Daniel Krell. Krell, as another former actor who has turned soldier to defend his country, brings a heavy dose of slapstick, double-takes and broad British comedy to his role as one of the many "suspicious persons" circling the vicarage.
As the bulk of the play falls on its central trio, the supporting cast must carry some of the more outlandish characterizations to keep the plot moving. Maria Silverman, as straight-laced church lady Mrs. Skillon, begins with the rod-up-the-fundament rigidity of a Downton Abbey caricature, but unravels, after a series of comic injuries and liberating drinks, with a sloppy comedic wallow reminiscent of Bobby Moynihan's "Drunk Uncle" sketches. David Cabot (the Oscar to O'Leary's Felix in The Odd Couple) glowers and bellows as only he can, portraying the wry but upstanding Bishop of Lax. And Mark Tinkey, as the German "intruder," unites the two German stereotypes of iron-fisted Nazi and fey, persnickety milquetoast into a singular, eccentric, villain.
Special mention must be made of Elizabeth Chappel as Ida, the vicarage maid: farce is a traditionally male-oriented genre, in which the brunt of the comedic heavy lifting falls to men who must cover up their or their friend's doings. Rarely is a female lead the major farcical player in the way that Ida is here, and Chappel is clearly reveling in this all-too-rare opportunity. While her mild "up north" accent is perfectly understandable, rendering a repeated gag of Ida being incomprehensible to posh Londoners speaking Queen's Received Pronunciation, this concession to western Pennsylvania audiences is an understandable bending of theatrical convention.
Admittedly, King's play occasionally feels derivative, either of its Agatha Christie inspirations such as The Hollow, or of the more famous farces of authors like Ken Ludwig. Not all of the play's intended witticisms are as funny as King seems to think they are, and the comic chemistry of the cast goes a long way to polish over the script's shortcomings. But after last year's surprisingly dark Odd Couple, when Felix's suicidal tendencies are no longer quite as easy to laugh at as they used to be, this kind of lightweight, almost mindless entertainment may be just what we needed. Like I said last month in my review of Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the St. Vincent summer season is comfort food, more useful than ever in these frequently tense times.