In preparation for this review, I did a little digging on the net about the Ray Cooney comedy Funny Money, which I’ve just seen at South Park Theatre, in hopes of discovering some factoid to start us off with a bang.
While the search proved futile (obviously), I was mildly surprised to learn that this British comedy – which I’d assumed had been written sometime in the 1960’s – actually made its debut in 1993.
Funny Money continues through September 8. South Park Theatre, 412-831-8552. www.southparktheatre.com
In my defense, however, it is an understandable mistake. Cooney is a British theatrical institution; the writer of a very specific kind of farce with titles like Not Now Darling, Run for Your Wife and Move Over Mrs. Markham. Set in a London which always feels just this side of the Swinging Sixties, the plays are mostly about men trying to either sleep with different women or cover up that they already have, and all featuring an increasingly frenetic pace as the “hero” attempts to keep his raft of lies from capsizing.
Most of Cooney’s plays were written at least 40 years ago which I’d assumed, considering how dated it feels, was true for Funny Money as well.
Henry Perkins is a nebbishy nobody of an accountant who, on his way home from work, picks up the wrong briefcase and discovers £750.000 inside. He rushes to tell his wife Jean they’re leaving immediately for Barcelona to hide out with the money. Whoever got his briefcase will discover where Henry works and come to kill him.
Jean, however, has planned a birthday dinner for Henry, which their best friends Vic and Betty Johnson are due at any second to help celebrate. The next thing you know two policemen have shown up and just when you think Cooney has reached the very outer limits of artistic imagination here comes a wise-cracking cab driver.
The first act is a fairly pain-free experience and I actually laughed out loud twice; once because of a joke Cooney wrote and once because of a very funny line reading by Renee Ruzzi-Kern playing Jean. Rob Rak gives a modulated performance as Henry slowly ratchetting up the mania for what we can guess will be a second act maelstrom of comedy. Kauleen Cloutier has some funny moments herself as Betty and Stephen Toth plays the thudding deadpan stupidity of Vic to good effect.
And that’s pretty much the highlight. The second act, in which Cooney brings absolutely nothing not already worn through in act one, is repetitive, incredulous and, for all the hootin’ and hollerin’, limp. Brad Campbell adds some spice as the cab driver, but it hardly makes up for the well-trodden material.
Rick Campbell (who has also designed the attractive set) directs and, for the first act anyway, keeps the pace sprightly. But, in the end, Cooney plays are numbingly relentless and mechanical – not an ounce of humanity in them, just business and takes, door slams and line-readings fired with machine gun precision. Unfortunately that unforgiving playing-style of farce never really gets off the ground here.
But, on the other hand, maybe they’re just saving the effort for a better play.