Upper-crusty Marcia (Arlene Horwitz Warner) is having the painters re-do the elegant flat she shares with her husband, Reggie. The painter who comes to finish the job turns out to be Walter (Doug Warner), a tradesman who, in the style of a Los Angeles waiter, is really an actor.
And who should show up just then but Jane (Presila Quinby), with whose husband, Brian, Marcia has been having an affair. This can't be good. Jane announces that she's found out about Marcia and Brian, and to share her feelings she produces a large mallet and smashes Marcia's prize hand-painted plate. Jane says she'll return later to tell Reggie, who's been out of town on a business trip, about Marcia and Brian.
That's the set up in Donald Churchill's "The Decorator," the funny if broadly drawn English farce that opened Friday night at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in downtown Medford, produced by Next Stage Repertory Company.
"The Decorator" is a rather typical English bedroom farce, a genre the conventions of which include bawdy jokes, lovers combining in improbable situations, mistaken identity, absurd coincidences and slamming doors. Speaking of which, Doug Ham's eye-popping version of an upper midlle-class flat is studded with six doors, no less.
Walter overhears the whole thing between Marcia and Jane. to make a long story short, Marcia and Walter hatch a plan to avert certain domestic disaster. Walter, whom Jane hasn't met, will return later to play the part of poor, cuckolded Reggie, whom Jane doesn't know.
What could possibly go wrong? After all, Walter's an actor. And he takes his craft seriously. A bit too seriously, it turns out. Walter claims to have played parts in Shakespeare, and when he gets in touch with his inner Othello, it's a bit rich. Oh, and he has this problem with names, as in not being able to remember that of his "wife," Marcia.
Brian and the real Reggie never appear in "The Decorator," and all the action is carried by Marcia, Jane and Walter. Timing is critical in farce, usually needing to be spot-on lest the whole edifice, which is absurd if you have a moment to think about it, begin to sink. "The Decorator" is less bang-bang in this way than, say, a Michael Frayne farce.
In a violation of Chekov's rule that a gun displayed in the first act must be fired in the third act, all those doors don't get much slamming.
There's a slap, and there's some physical comedy like some business Quinby has with a chair and a couch. But much of the comedy actually comes from character.
Walter is a working-class stiff who took up acting only after his kids were grown and his wife left him. Some of the comedy between him and Marcia stems from Walter's resentment of 1-percenters and his need for a little revenge (Freud taught us about the anger in humor), a lesson in humility. In fact revenge is a motif right through the second act, with first Jane, then Marcia, using Walter in impulses of revenge.
"The Decorator" is not the funniest farce you'll see. It's slow to develop in the first act, some of the jokes are stale, and one sometimes senses Churchill struggling to find the humorous possibilities in the situation into which he's written the characters.
But the actors are lively, and they seem to be having fun. Warner's Walter comes to life in a quirky, physical performance, such as when he struggles with the real Reggie's Seville Row suit, which doesn't fit him. Arlene Warner's bitchy madcap Marcia bounces off all three walls as she plays the foil to both Walter and Jane. The troublesome thing is, she's not a very likeable character. Nor, come to think of it, is Jane, although it's fun to see Quinby, who often plays straight arrows, have a change to be naughty (still, she doesn't seem THAT naughty).
"The Decorator"is the second play presented by Next Stage (the first was "Talley's Folly"), the GRT's new resident company, founded last year by theater veterans Doug Warner, Kate Sullivan and Peter Alzado. It's a short run due to the Craterian's schedule, but you can see it at 7:30 tonight and again Saturday. Tickets are $10. Go to www.craterian.org or call 541 779-3000.
Bill Varble is a freelance entertainment writer. Reach him at 541-261-9989.