People who regularly look for signs of deterioration in the quality of Broadway fare may
find something to latch onto in The Play What I Wrote at the Lyceum, which boasts Mike Nichols as one of its half-dozen producers. Nineteen years ago, Nichols presented Whoopi Goldberg at the same theater in her breakout solo show. And, 24 years before that, Nichols and Elaine May were at the John Golden in An Evening With Nichols and May, splitting audience’s sides with comedy routines that are still ahead of their time.
Nichols’s newest, splashily produced effort, an import from London, stops time in its tracks and sends it reeling dizzily backwards. It stars Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, who sometimes call themselves The Right Size and who were very amusing a few years ago at P.S. 122 in Do You Come Here Often? about two men locked in a public toilet
for 25 years. For their current project, they evidently decided to adapt the routines of ’70s British television comics Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. They also seem to have thought that a storyline might be a helpful addition and came up with one that has McColl intending to leave the act behind in order to mount a play that he’s conjured, titled A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple. At first, Foley resists the change and then reckons he’ll play along with his determined partner, giving him enough rope to hang himself.
The title of the play within the play gives a strong whiff of the puns, innuendos and sight that gags McColl, Foley and their third banana, the hard-working Toby Jones, crank out like sausages in a factory. Anyone already chuckling at the wordplay that turns Pimpernel into Pimple (not, of course, for the first time in comedy history) is advised to hurry over to the Lyceum box office for tickets to the two-hour enterprise. The rest of us may want to spend just a few minutes trying to get to the bottom of a certain question before returning to relatively funnier current events such as the lengthening Iraq invasion.
The urgent question in regard to The Play What I Wrote is, of course: Why? Offering this replay of old boob-tube gags made some sense in Great Britain, where it won the 2002 Olivier Award for best comedy and where audiences of a certain generation know who Morecambe and Wise are. That passel of eager theatergoers seem to have been pleased to get a chance to hear golden oldie routines once again, but why in a theater? Why not on the telly? No easy response to that, unless the demise of the television variety hour is taken into consideration. Make no mistake about it: The Play What I Wrote, one supposed attraction of which is the appearance nightly of a surprise guest, is nothing more than a television variety hour plopped into a theater because there’s no place for it among today’s small screen programming.
Even if The Play What I Wrote had its tenuous place in the West End, the next urgent question is: Why America and why Broadway? It’s one thing for this country to welcome the eloquent coalition cheerleader Tony Blair, but should we be expected to throw open our arms for a lineup of jokes that includes, for instance, “Her teeth were like stars they come out at night?” Well, Foley and McColl have got a million of ’em, folks! It’s no wonder that some members of the audience laugh it up; they’re well-rehearsed from having giggled at these quips before, in many other situations. If they haven’t heard the jokes verbatim before, they recognize the clichéd comic rhythms that set laugh tracks going. For example, they know there’s supposed to be something humorous about having Toby Jones come out as famous director Mike Tickles and then get repeatedly tickled. Why, this show is so freighted with old wheezes, it even includes a Robert Goulet allusion!
The friend what I took to a press preview speculated, before abandoning me at intermission, that the only explanation for The Play What I Wrote washing up on these shores is that the production is a front for the laundering of Mafia money. But my theory is that Nichols and the five other producers billed with him above the title truly believe that Hamish McColl and Sean Foley — as themselves and as Morecambe and Wise facsimiles — are funny men who have been put through their non-stop paces with due diligence by director Kenneth Branagh (of all unlikely people, but perhaps Branagh loved Eric and Ernie when he was a kid). With abundant changes of Alice Power’s set pieces and costumes, and with Simon Baker’s giddy sound design, The Play What I Wrote is colorful and slick.
Are McColl and Foley masters of inspired silliness? Can they be compared, as Branagh has suggested in The New York Times, to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope loping through their road pictures? Well, yes, they can be compared: unfavorably. A more accurate comparison for those who lack intimate knowledge of Morecambe and Wise would be with the
gaggle of male comedy teams that saw dollars signs when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made their linked name in the late ’40s. Foley and McColl both trade on the Lewis shtick
rather than the Martin approach, through funny walks and voices and dim-wit smiles. McColl also deems it comedically stylish to take in a big gasp of air before he speaks each of his lines. Together, these two most closely resemble the team of Pepper Davis and Tony Reese, whom Ed Sullivan gave lots of air time and column inches in the ’60s and ’70s.
Kevin Kline was the guest on the night when the critics came out. His assignment was to be straight man for Foley and McColl and then appear as the Conte de Toblerone in the play what McColl wrote about Bastille inmates at the beginning of the French Revolution. While a mechanical rat was pulled across the stage and skeletons danced on hoists, Kline went through the motions with only the barest
hint of embarrassment. Maybe he was thinking that he’d missed the chance to grace Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and that this was the closest he’d get. (By the way, it seems that each of the mystery guests hang around for about a week before being succeeded by someone else who’s prepared to be a good sport.)
During the course of The Play What I Wrote, the buffoon played by McColl goes through some self-esteem crises. “I am not funny and I have no hope of ever being funny,” he moans while sitting on a bench and contemplating a show-biz farewell. If there is anything brave about the comedy of Foley and McColl, it’s the sheer chutzpah they display in lofting this remark when so many people in the audience must be silently agreeing with the sentiment.