Since the Golden Age of Hollywood, organized crime has provided a bottomless well of inspiration for popular culture. Whether the medium is film, television, books or the stage, more often than not the ethnicity of the fictional mobsters we love to hate is Italian. There are legitimate historical reasons for this, of course, in the longstanding Sicilian tradition of the Cosa Nostra and its emigrant offspring crime syndicates; but still, the stereotype must be a source of chagrin for many honest Italian Americans. Isn’t it time to give this overused trope a bit of a rest? Shouldn’t we find some other ethnic group to smear once in a while?
Back in the 1970s, the satirical magazine National Lampoon had some fun with the humor potential of this concept, spoofing negative ethnic stereotyping by publishing a collection of samples of “anti-Dutch hate literature.” What made the stuff funny – in the Harvard Lampoon’s usual sophomoric, tastelessly weird way – was the very fact that most Americans’ worst mental association with the people of the Netherlands (other than the dastardly doings of their Boer descendants in apartheid-era South Africa) was an overzealous obsession with housecleaning. Making them into bogeymen elicited a kind of cognitive dissonance that can easily be nudged in the direction of giddy laughter.
You’d think that this sort of approach would be a goldmine for comedy, and it’s a bit surprising that more hasn’t been done with it as yet. In 2006 an actor named Paul Slade Smith, who had done his time in classic farces like Noises Off, decided to take a run at the idea, this time for the stage. What if a criminal enforcer’s most nefarious method of getting information out of his next victim were to play the bagpipes at them? What if your town were secretly being run by the Scottish Mafia?
Monty Python posited giant blancmanges from outer space turning people into Scotsmen so that they could beat them at Wimbledon, but that’s a little too outré for our local theater. A hitman in a kilt…now that’s playable. And the proof in this particular pudding is on hilarious display for one more weekend at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville, where you can catch Smith’s Unnecessary Farce beginning at 8 p.m. this Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. It’s a relentlessly funny show requiring exquisite comic timing, and as usual at Shadowland with its policy of employing only members of Actors’ Equity onstage, the cast delivers in spades.
Shadowland has a long track record of offering this sort of door-slammer farce, such as last year’s excellent production of Boeing, Boeing; but the eight-door, two-bed set for Unnecessary Farce takes the breathless craziness up a notch. Our premise is that a pair of rookie cops, shy Eric (Blaine Smith) and inept-but-gung-ho Billie (Susan Slotoroff), have been assigned to stake out two adjoining hotel rooms in an attempt to videotape the town’s mayor (Ray Faiola) cooking the municipal books. Their accomplice in the sting operation is Mayor Meekly’s new accountant, Karen (Molly Densmore), under whose mousy, buttoned-up exterior lurks an explosive, too-long-repressed sexuality.
The cops are relying on the success of this setup as a career springboard, but things naturally go awry almost immediately as a different sort of inappropriate behavior begins to get captured on videotape just as the wrong person walks in the wrong door. Misperceptions of what’s actually going on multiply and many articles of clothing get misplaced as the mayor’s officious security guard (Torsten Hillhouse) and his addled wife (Sandy York) separately come looking for him. And into the confused and confusing mix eventually stalks Todd (John-Patrick Driscoll), a gigantic, intimidating, hot-tempered Scotsman on a murderous mission from the mysterious local Mafia don known only as Big Mac.
Comedic constructions like Unnecessary Farce should never get made into movies; they are designed expressly to work most brilliantly within the confines of a stage set like this, ignited and accelerated by the string of arrivals and departures, sudden discoveries and near-misses. The two hotel beds add immeasurably to the manic pileup as various combinations of struggling antagonists or people trying to hide get mistaken for frolicking twosomes and threesomes. Then, just when you think that things couldn’t get any more absurd, some new plot twist gets thrown into the bubbling stew of laughs. It’s one of those rare comedies where you feel out of breath before the first act is over and utterly helpless by the end, like a ticklish child whose tormentor has no mercy whatsoever.
The entire cast – all highly experienced and talented performers – jumps into this verbally and physically demanding play with great skill, timing and enthusiasm. I’m reluctant to single out one performance above the others, as they’re all so good. But special props belong to Slotoroff and Driscoll for one over-the-top sequence in which Billie must translate an incomprehensible rant that the hitman, during an apoplectic, vein-popping, red-faced rage, spews at the highest of speeds in the thickest of Highland burrs. It’s a peak comedic moment.
So you’ve got no excuse to sit home and mope this summer. Between the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Liar and Shadowland’s production of Unnecessary Farce, you have two of the funniest plays seen in these parts in years to choose from. Go out and have a laugh.
Tickets for all Shadowland Theatre productions cost $39 for evening performances, $34 for matinées. For more information or to reserve tickets, call the box office at (845) 647-5511 or visit www.shadowlandtheatre.org.
Unnecessary Farce, Thursday-Saturday, July 31-August 2, 8 p.m., $39, Sunday, August 3, 2 p.m., $34, Shadowland Theatre, 157 Canal Street, Ellenville; (845) 647-5511, www.shadowlandtheatre.org.