I am a big fan of British comedy and in particular, one master of the genre—John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. That show is an example of farce, done brilliantly. Basil Fawlty is an improbable character trying to run an upscale inn. Basil is always scheming to get the big score and he is surrounded by crazy employees, kooky permanent residents, a very lost Spanish butler/server and his wife, who is always cleaning up his mess. Tommy on Top at at thePride Arts Center is the work of British playwright Chris Woodley, who has written for a popular U.K. series East Enders. Woodley has given Tommy on Top all of the ingredients of classic farce. There are improbable characters, dramatic entries and exits, crude jokes, bodily noises, and copious amounts of bodily fluids—not the good kind. This production—directed by Jay Españo—takes a long time to get up to pace and then wobbles trying to keep that breakneck pace.
The premise of Tommy on Top is that a closeted gay actor is a shoo-in for an Academy Award and his crude manager attempts to keep him in the closet until he gets that little gold statuette. Ryan Cason plays Tommy Miller. He is movie star handsome and quite buff, but comes up short in pulling off the comedy. Miller’s interpretation is more fish out of water than farcical. Tommy’s boyfriend George is played by Patrick Gosney and he has the timing and the cultivated ability to be in high dudgeon and funny. Caitlyn McNichol is quite good as Tommy’s booze-swilling sister Molly, who is also a beauty vlogger with a mind in the gutter. McNichol is the understudy for this role and has the timing to go from stuffing a body in the closet to tongue-twisting soliloquies on gender roles and ideal society. I think that she has the best role and plays it well.
Brian Boller plays Tommy’s manager Eddie, who is a gay 45th-president supporter and claims to be Republican. That alone is a farcical concept. Boller pulls off some great Three Stooges moves while spouting vile epithets at George. This is where a cultural disconnect comes in with U.K. versus USA. Eddie hates George because he is Irish, which is more of a British thing and doesn’t quite translate as farcical in the USA. If George were from Central America, the jokes might have flown. Anderson’s character gets to be central to the multiple doors and off-stage noises that are essential to this kind of comedy.
Sandra Franco is cast as mega-agent Judy Jenkins who has an agenda in offering to represent Tommy and manage the crisis of being possibly outed. Johnson is too understated for the role, and there is no oomph to the big punchline when she tosses a character over a balcony in revenge for shagging her now ex-husband. The pace nearly slows to a crawl and there is nothing outrageous about her acting or reactions to other characters. Blythe Butler brings a little punch to the role of Kiki Lopez, a celebrity blogger who has pictures of Tommy and George in compromising positions.
In spite of a beautiful set also designed by director Españo, Tommy on Top doesn’t hit that high gear of pacing to pull off the dialogue, slamming doors, and offstage sound effects. A really good flatulence joke fell flat because Johnson’s reaction was so mellow/haughty. The body being tossed off the balcony was barely funny the first time, but should have been even more hilarious the second time. Adding a surprised cat noise was good but not enough. The sight gags were off, and even the balloon drop was lopsided. Why couldn’t they drop from the middle like the confetti did? Where was the dang disco ball that was promised? Tommy on Top is a pleasant enough way to spend an evening during Pride Month. However, they need to either tighten it up to make the jokes and sight gags snap, or serve drinks to the audience and bring them in on the joke.
Tommy on Top is playing Thursday-Sunday through July 17, at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets are $35 with a $5 discount for seniors and students. Pride Arts Center requires that the audience be masked at all times in the theater. Mask up and happy Pride!
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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