Theatre Review: ‘Caught in the Net’ at the Little Theater of Alexandria

Mike Baker (John Smith), Annie Ermlick (Barbara Smith), Tricia O’Neill-Politte (Mary Smith). Pictures by Tabitha Rymal - Vaughn.

Mike Baker (John Smith), Annie Ermlick (Barbara Smith), Tricia O’Neill-Politte (Mary Smith).
Pictures by Tabitha Rymal – Vaughn.

As the curtain rises at the Little Theater of Alexandria’s new British farce, Caught in the Net, the sequel to the hit farce Run For Your Wife by Ray Cooney, the audience delights in the cheery colors of two side by side living rooms  that naturally flow into one another.  They quickly catch on to the fact they are watching two households simultaneously, one in Streatham, the other in Wimbledon, and jump into the fast-rolling, snappy rhythms of repeated phrases in one household and in the other.

Farce indeed.

But as the scrubbed teens in both homes marvel in the coincidences of their blossoming new relationship that began online — look here: their fathers have the same name, age, and occupation — does the gravity of the situation begin to settle.

Mike Baker (John Smith) and Paul Tamney (Stanley Gardner). Pictures by Tabitha Rymal - Vaughn.

Mike Baker (John Smith) and Paul Tamney (Stanley Gardner). Pictures by Tabitha Rymal – Vaughn.

You can almost hear the wind go out of the audience as they realize they’ll be spending their evening witnessing the maneuverings of a self-satisfied bigamist with two families whose teenaged children in each family are about to meet, date and possibly commit incest.

And here’s where randy, winking British sex romp crashes headlong into the relative Puritanism of their American cousins, for whom these aren’t saucy elements of broad farce, but mildly offensive components of evening-long dread.

They still might have pulled it off, though, if Mike Baker, playing the cad at the center of the calamity, had been a little more brash, a little more pompous, and quite a bit more panicked. I kept imagining a John Cleese type in the role. Instead, he seemed to lack both the edge and the over-inflated ego to pull off such a convoluted lie for 18 years.

Luke Markham (Gavin Smith), Annie Ermlick (Barbara Smith), Tricia O’Neill-Politte (Mary Smith).  Pictures by Tabitha Rymal - Vaughn

Luke Markham (Gavin Smith), Annie Ermlick (Barbara Smith), Tricia O’Neill-Politte (Mary Smith). Pictures by Tabitha Rymal – Vaughn

Apart from the fact you’d wonder why two women of the caliber portrayed by Annie Ermlick and Tricia O’Neill-Politte would fall for him, there are times after some of the closer calls of being found out in the action that Baker’s character merely giggles.

Director Eleanore Tapscott has her hands full at keeping the timing of the slamming doors — one for every one of the seven cast members in Michael deBlois’ fine set — and the choreography of the close misses of entries and exits to care about Baker’s exact reactions to things, but it makes for a long evening as the essence of Ray Cooney’s play is to prevent one thing: the two kids from meeting.

As the young people, though, Luke Markham and Eliza Lore are a couple of the best things about the play. You rather wish they had nothing to do with what’s going on and really could run off together.

Most of the on-the-run, last minute subterfuge is left to the hapless logger played by Paul Tamney, who also receives the lion’s share of the play’s humor. Though his accent goes on and off, he’s attuned to how humor works and can coax it from an audience through longer pauses before he speaks.

Just as funny on stage, though, is O’Neill-Politte, whose every reaction is just right.

But humor is at odds with offensiveness at every turn, from exaggerated Chinese accents (one solution: put the constantly calling second wife off by pretending you’re a Chinese restaurant), to suspicions of homosexuality — until very recently, a easy source for endless stage humor.

Richard Fiske is an obviously younger man playing an exaggerated and confused senior citizen. When in doubt, kick the cane from under him and watch him fall for quick comic effect, despite the fact that the opening night crowd had some senior citizens with canes of their own.

Good will builds when it seems it will actually end, but the conclusion to the whole thing, and the manner in which they reach an ending with people feeling halfway satisfied with the situation, is so out of the blue and hard to believe (rendering all the actions in act one false for one thing) that one can’t leave fast enough. Farce indeed.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.

Caught in the Net continues at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, VA, through Sept. 28. For tickets contact the theatre or 703-683-0496.

About Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin is a freelance arts writer in D.C. whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon.com and Bethesda Magazine. His blog, largely about TV, is at rogercatlin.com, Follow him at Twitter as @rcatlin.