The 1988–89 New York theater season was the first in five years to succeed without the aid of an Enormous British Musical, on whose sizable coattails the majority of Broadway productions usually ride. In recent years, ticket buyers who couldn't get into Cats, Les Misérables, or The Phantom of the Opera settled for whatever modest homegrown production they could find—straight plays, small "chamber musicals," even something off-Broadway. These productions survived on spillover business from the megahits; if they flourished, it was usually in the expansive shadow cast by Andrew Lloyd Webber's crashing chandeliers and roller-skating choo-choo trains.
This year the only gargantuan British musical import was Carrie, an adaptation of the Stephen King horror thriller, which expired in a $7 million bloodbath after three performances. Pressed to fill the theatrical vacuum, Broadway impresarios turned to one of the stage's oldest and most beloved genres and made a season of it. The 1988–89 New York theater season will be remembered as the Year of the Farce.
Five farces received major productions in New York this year, and three of them are certified smashes. If this were London, where plays like No Sex Please, We're British and Bedroom Farce enjoy perennial presentation, the glut of door-slamming comedies might not warrant comment. But Broadway hasn't had a real farce on the boards since 1984, when Michael Frayn's ingenious backstage fiasco Noises Off crossed the Atlantic. Now deliciously puerile plays featuring naked policemen and temporarily deaf socialites are filling the theaters.
Why are audiences clamoring to see these downright silly plays? There is certainly nothing new about the form—farce has been around since Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, where the ever-reliable misidentified-twins conceit inspires humorous mayhem. And farceurs like George Feydeau (A Flea in Her Ear) have been repertory stalwarts for hundreds of years. Our taste for frothy inanity, however lowbrow, has esteemed precedents.
Even if audience members have never attended a play before, they're bound to have seen derivations of farce on television. Shows like I Love Lucy and Three's Company honor the conventions of the form in nearly every episode: Lucy does something she's not supposed to do and tries to keep it from Ricky; in the process of covering up her initial transgression she either lies or unwittingly gets into more mischief, thereby compounding her problems; identities are mistaken, the heroine survives several near-misses, and we, the viewers, are the only ones who really know the truth.
This is the pleasure in farce: being in on the joke. The sensation is akin to accompanying a friend to a restaurant where, unbeknownst to your companion, a surprise party awaits. The farces in New York, like any good farce, treat theatergoers to a kind of "insider" knowledge. While most of the characters onstage are getting duped, we viewers know that nearly everything said by the hero is a desperate lie, and we squirm with the fibber when he seems to be trapped. It's vicarious mischief-making. To our delight, the naughty protagonist concocts exponentially preposterous stories to cover his tracks and somehow escapes justice. In most farces, the fibber, running out of equivocations, is finally forced to explain his outrageous behavior honestly. And when he does, of course, nobody believes him.
The scheme is much the same in Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, Bruce Graham's Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar and Grille, and Neil Simon's (yes, that Neil Simon) Rumors. In each play a pebble of impropriety—drunkenness, a sexual peccadillo—rolls inexorably into a boulder of disaster as the hapless sinner tries, usually with the help of a well-meaning but incompetent friend, to camouflage his indiscretion. These plays are necessarily short on character and long on plot. The best farces are propelled by nonstop action and have an air of hysteria: If, in Run for Your Wife, for example, John Smith, a bigamist cabbie, doesn't dash from wife to wife, even at the most inopportune moments, he'll be found out and punished. If, in Rumors, an important politician's apparent suicide attempt isn't obscured by his frantic friends, their careers will be ruined. The higher the stakes, the louder the laughs.
The British, who revel in real-life scandals (such as the Profumo affair), not only enjoy watching farces but have traditionally been master purveyors of the best-crafted works, most of them revolving around sex. These plays provide an unthreatening, salutary outlet for blowing off some good old-fashioned English repression. True to form, the two British farces playing in New York, Run For Your Wife and What the Butler Saw, use a sexual infelicity as instigation. Farce allows theatergoers to witness common human imperfections—dishonesty, infidelity, crudity—embodied by others. In Joe Orton's revolutionary Butler, a scalding masterpiece written 20 years ago, even normally taboo topics like homosexuality, pedophilia, and rape become rich sources of perverse humor.
The American farces, on the other hand, have little to do with sex or distasteful perversions. Lend Me a Tenor, in fact, concerns a greedy opera promoter's attempt to pawn off a Cleveland office assistant as Tito Merelli, the world's greatest tenor, who overdoses on sleeping pills moments before a sold-out charity performance. Rainbow Bar and Grille, a vaguely absurdist work, depicts a group of restaurant patrons awaiting the end of the world. In the American version of farce, especially in joke-king Neil Simon's Rumors, witty one-liners infect the purity of mindless door-slamming with something approaching thoughtfulness. While logic is key to farcical success, smartness isn't necessarily a virtue—we'd much rather see a philandering husband leap about the stage trying to hide his secretary's panties before his wife arrives than listen to borscht-belt quips about Jewish mothers and Italian tempers. Still, American-written farces are currently generating a lot of laughs—and a lot of ticket sales—in theaters formerly dedicated to bloated British musicals.
That American farces (along with their experienced English cousins) are flourishing on Broadway gives lie to the assumption that New York playgoers will only flock to immense, over-designed operatic spectacles. While Lend Me a Tenor, in particular, has a ravishing art deco setting, the only thing really necessary to stage a farce is five or six slammable doors, a handful of expert actors (Paxton Whitehead, Joseph Maher, Ron Liebman), and a sufficiently nimble script. For years, scenery-inspired gasping was about the only sound heard on the Great White Way. But the surfeit of invigorating farces this season makes it possible once again to sit in a Broadway theater and join audiences in uproarious, cathartic laughter.
Michael Konik is a journalist based in New York City.