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Smelling a Rat

Eddie Kaye Thomas and Michelle Williams
in Smelling a Rat
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's difficult to categorize Mike Leigh's Smelling a Rat. The play begins with a man in a trench coat, flashlight in hand, entering what appears to be a young girl's bedroom; then the man grabs a gun and retreats into a wardrobe cabinet. But this is not a thriller. The bedroom contains six of these large walk-in cabinets where various characters hide out at different points in the first act--but this is not a farce. Smelling a Rat is full of both humor and drama, suspense and absurdity. Leigh, who wrote the play in 1988, calls it an "anti-farce," which is as good a description as any.

The play is set in the London home of Rex Weasel (Terence Rigby), a successful exterminator who is supposedly vacationing with his wife on the island of Lanzarote. However, Rex has mysteriously returned sans wife and doesn't seem too keen to let anyone know about it. One of his employees, Vic Maggot (Brían F. O'Byrne), and Vic's wife, Charmaine (Gillian Foss), have come by to check on the apartment while the Weasels are away. But the Maggots aren't really supposed to be there; Vic is just doing a favor for another employee who was entrusted with checking in on the flat. To make things more complicated, the Weasels' estranged son Rocky (Eddie Kaye Thomas) shows up with his ditzy girlfriend Melanie-Jane (Michelle Williams).

None of the characters are all that likeable but director Scott Elliott helps his talented cast make them compelling. Rigby is gruff and comically menacing. Thomas's sullen and silent demeanor has just enough edge to show the rage Rocky feels inside. O'Byrne and Foss are a delightfully comic pair, while Williams takes what could be seen as an extremely whiny, one-note character and offers a tragic portrait of insecurity.

Ultimately, the play is a study in human relationships and the inability to communicate. It sets up a number of expectations and questions: Where is Mrs. Weasel? Why is Rocky unwelcome in his parents' home? What did Vic Maggot do to land himself in prison? Will that gun ever be fired? The playwright answers some of the questions, but not all of them; he's more focused on the conversations amongst his screwball cast of characters. Leigh has a great ear for dialogue, and the play contains some of the oddest non-sequiturs imaginable, such as: "People who jog a lot get Jogger's Nipple."

Kevin Price's realistic set is complemented by Jason Lyon's lighting design, which incorporates track lighting and other fixtures built right into the set to create a naturalistic look. Eric Becker's costumes are appropriate to each character, but he really goes to town with Melanie-Jane's ensemble: Williams sports a black leather jacket over a green shirt, short black skirt, and gold pumps. The look is completed by a gargantuan bow and excessively large glasses.

Rat's ending may leave audience members scratching their heads in wonder, but it is a brilliant example of what a play can do when it defies the expectations it has set up. You come to realize that nothing has really changed in the lives of these characters, and that a neat and tidy resolution is too much to hope for. Like the two other Leigh plays revived by The New Group under the direction of Elliot (Goosepimples and Ecstasy), Smelling a Rat depicts a bleak, unromanticized view of working-class life that is so sad, you have to laugh.