Smelling a Rat | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Smelling a Rat 

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Famous Door Theatre

at the Theatre Building

A few years ago the Pheasant Run Theatre tried something new. Instead of hiring former TV celebrities to star in the light comedies favored by suburban audiences, the producers decided to draw on Chicago's burgeoning and talented theater community. Top-notch actors soon began making the long trek out to Saint Charles, and the productions improved enormously--but the scripts didn't. The producers continued to offer up the same inane comedies that attracted the largest audiences.

What this experiment demonstrated was that a feeble script can support only a limited amount of intelligence and ingenuity. Some actors did give such inventive performances that they actually propped up the material--or at least their portions of it. But even with outstanding performances by the whole cast, the inherent weaknesses of the play eventually caused the production to collapse.

The Famous Door Theatre Company seems to be conducting a similar experiment. Smelling a Rat, a would-be farce by Mike Leigh, a British playwright and film director, has no pretensions to profundity. It's just a silly comedy, the kind that would do well on the stage of any suburban dinner theater.

Last year Famous Door staged a beautiful production of Salt of the Earth, a poignant coming-of-age drama by John Godber, another British playwright. Two of the actors from that production are in this one, and the three others in this cast have plenty of talent.

One actress, Christine Ashe, gives a brilliant portrayal of a sexy adolescent twit, transcending the material by giving it more humor and purpose than it actually has. And Rick Peeples--who like John Malkovich possesses the mysterious ability to grab an audience's attention--has some fine moments as Rex Weasel, the obnoxious owner of a pest-exterminating business.

But the rest of the cast, despite solid performances, fall helplessly as Leigh's script collapses beneath them.

The play is directed by Michael Sokoloff, a successful local fight choreographer whose talent for creating rapid, reckless movement is quickly apparent. In the first scene Rex returns home from vacation without his wife and wordlessly unpacks his suitcase. On the page the scene is dull, but Sokoloff has turned it into a hyperkinetic ballet, performed to that familiar, frenetic tune often played at the circus when the acrobats perform. Peeples races around the room, stashing his clothes, golf clubs, and bags in one or another of the seven side-by-side closets on the back wall of the set. He carries his toiletries into the bathroom, and finally throws his wife's stuffed animals off the bed, finishing just as the final note sounds. But before Rex can relax he hears someone coming, so he grabs a gun from the nightstand drawer and hides in one of the closets.

After this high-energy opening the play slides into an extended torpor that lasts until Ashe's entrance later in the act. Before that comes a long scene in which Vic Maggott, one of Rex's employees, and his wife Charmaine explore the room, apparently using Rex's vacation as an opportunity to see how the boss lives. Scott Kennedy and Elaine Rivkin give Vic and Charmaine agreeable personalities, and they certainly speak with an authentic British working-class accent--much of their dialogue is barely understandable. But rooting around Rex's bedroom, delivering the light banter the playwright has written for them, Kennedy and Rivkin can succeed only in making their characters cute, not interesting.

Then Melanie-Jane (Ashe), the girlfriend of Rex's son Rock (Dominic Rivkin), comes home with him, hoping to be seduced. But she holds him at bay for a while with an endless stream of chatter. "Liberace!" she squeals as she flips through the records in the bedroom. "You've got Liberace. He's my Mummy's favorite. She used to play him all the time at home; then he died; and now Daddy doesn't let her play him anymore." Ashe delivers this nervous chatter with a giddy enthusiasm that's hilarious, and her uncanny comic timing elicits laughter from sly pauses as well. Whenever she's onstage, the play is not only entertaining but seems to be going somewhere. Once she discovers Vic and Charmaine hiding in two of the closets, however, and Rex hiding in another, she slips into a fright-induced trance interrupted only by occasional screams. And as she retreats from the action, the play slips back into neutral.

Smelling a Rat is shot through with lapses of logic. Why, for example, does Rex stay in the closet after he realizes that the intruders are only Vic and Charmaine? And why does Melanie-Jane suddenly emerge from her catatonia to kiss Rock passionately, drag him onto the bed with her, and pull his pants off when all the other characters are in the next room? Such inconsistencies suggest that the playwright, straining for laughs, has simply neglected character and plot. But humor that isn't firmly rooted in character and plot seldom works.

Like the plays once staged at Pheasant Run, Smelling a Rat provides a springboard for individual actors to rise above the material, if only for a moment. But the play just wasn't built to support much brilliance.


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