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The Arts

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Production doesn't cheap out on slapstick

Screwball shenanigans fun; laughs not so rich

Posted: 10/5/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The screwball movie comedies of the Depression era placated the poor and unemployed masses by portraying the rich as a bizarre group of eccentric crackpots.

Audiences got to laugh at the embarrassing and improbable romantic complications onscreen that undermined the elite's status as dignified and respected members of the upper classes.

The best of their kind were battle-of-the-sexes romantic farces that reversed the Pygmalion scenario, allowing women to have the upper hand in relationships.

Playwright Carolyn Gray enjoys an acute fondness for screwball comedies and has completed her Winnipeg Trilogy with a frenetic homage called The Miser of Middlegate, that had its première Thursday.

There is an inherent risk to this polarizing genre. While some viewers delight in the slapstick, door-slamming and shouting, others can't stand the silly shenanigans of unfunny farceurs.

Both sides will find compelling evidence to prop up their positions in this Theatre Projects/Zone 41 co-production. The title character is a tightwad named Winchell -- who also goes by Winch, which rhymes with grinch.

The Scrooge McDuck look-alike is celebrating his 37th anniversary with his wife Mia at a restaurant, where together they get to gloating about their wealth and business success. Soon, however, they begin bickering about his cheapskate ways, the way he starves his guard dog until it's too weak to do much and hides gas for the car in plastic containers. The wine-guzzling Mia can't understand his penny-pinching when they are so rich.

When he attempts to charge their aimless 21-year-old daughter Emily rent to stay in their mansion in the Gates, she announces her intention to divorce him. "You are a miserly man with a miserly spirit," she says.

Faced with a challenge to his riches in the form of a divorce settlement, Winchell plots with the butler, Richard, who is on extended unpaid probation, to woo her back. Meanwhile, Emily has secret plans to marry her surfer boyfriend Martin in an elaborate St. Bart's wedding, all paid for by her deep-pockets daddy.

Richard and Emily also team up in search of Winchell's stash of cash, while his warring spouse Mia plans to use the court to separate him from half his fortune.

Gray has a fine comic touch but she can't keep her loathsome central character interesting over two hours. His gasping for breath when he has to sign big cheques gets old fast, even for typical Winnipeggers fond of saving a buck. The always resourceful Nicholas Rice, who lived in the Gates in the '50s, can't overcome the restrictions of the crazy stereotype to win any empathy from the audience.

Marina Stephenson Kerr, as Mia, is emphatically convincing as the strong-willed marital avenger who is one step ahead of all the men in her life.

Gray and director Krista Jackson do throw in a sublime screwball scene that is untouchable by even hardcore naysayers of the genre. The family-meets-daughter's-fiancé-for the-first-time dinner is a visual feast, ridiculously wacky and wondrous. First, Martin makes his grand entrance through the window, wearing only his underwear and flip-flops. Dad has hidden the valuable dinner chairs, so the foursome converse and eat while bouncing on pink Pilates balls. It's a hilarious scene as Richard, nonchalantly balancing a tray of dishes, keeps the balls in their spots with his feet whenever the diners rise.

Gray energizes The Miser with plenty of snappy dialogue, while Jackson draws entertaining supporting performances on Grant Guy's well-conceived, door-dominated set, which flips open on the sides to allow scene changes. Ryan James Miller almost succeeds in stealing the show as the scheming household help who is clearly smarter than his well-heeled employers. Andrew Cecon brings well-developed beefcake to the table, while Shannon Guile gets all she can from the role of a poor little rich girl looking for some purpose, any purpose, in life.

The trouble with The Miser and modern screwball comedies about the greedy is that they're not as funny as they try to be. The antics of parsimonious one-percenters are more reprehensible than riotous today and that's nothing to laugh about.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 G3

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