HABEAS CORPUS by Alan Bennett (CanStage). Runs to November 5. See Continuing, page 91, for details. Rating: NNN
Playwright Alan Bennett knows how to take lechery off the list of vices and move it over to the side of the virtues - the comic virtues. Set in England during the swinging 60s, Habeas Corpus is full of characters with the itch to couple, though no one sets his or her sights on an equally willing partner.
The romantic Arthur Wicksteed ( Joseph Ziegler ), a physician bored with his work and his sometimes shrewish wife Muriel ( Fiona Reid ), makes a play for the young Felicity ( Tara Rosling ), just returned from the colonies with her mother ( Astrid Van Wieren ). His flat-chested sister Constance ( Melody A. Johnson ) - yes, this is the kind of comedy where body parts are a source of jokes - orders a device that will give her a pneumatic set of breasts, but the apparatus wins her a suitor other than her fiancé, Canon Throbbing ( David Storch ), namely Sir Percy ( Cliff Saunders ), head of the British Medical Association. And then....
Well, you get the idea. Though the play's a farce, Bennett occasionally strikes a note of tenderness and even sadness beneath the frantic surface action, a hint to gather your rosebuds while you may.
The storyline sometimes comes to a halt while the characters break into a song-and-dance routine, and the clever playwright includes rhyming dialogue that suggests an updated Restoration comedy.
The cast, clearly having a great time playing the material, is up to the risible double entendres and non sequiturs. Reid uses her comic timing with great skill, while Ziegler, who seldom gets to play comedy, demonstrates his facility with a funny line.
There's not a weak link in the group, from Cyrus Lane 's hypochondriac son - he could give spinelessness lessons to a jellyfish - to Neil Foster 's breast inspector, who gets caught up in the arms of the sex-mad octopus that Muriel becomes. Johnson's slump-shouldered Constance is a joy, as are the mother/daughter combination of Van Wieren and Rosling, an updated version of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn.
Saunders's physical comedy brings some extra laughs to the vengeance-bent, Napoleon-complex-ridden Percy, and Storch's sexually frustrated Throbbing has such a large overbite that he threatens to eat his own chin. Tying it all together is Mrs. Swabb ( Sheila McCarthy ), the Wicksteeds' know-it-all maid, who functions as both narrator and game-show host.
If there's a problem with the production, it's director Morris Panych's pace in the first half; farce shouldn't stop and start as it does here. But things improve in the second half, and by the time this review appears the comedy engine will probably be humming along.