Slamming doors, mistaken identities, and champagne, champagne, champagne; Ray Cooney's There Goes the Bride aspires to the British sex farce mantle. Indeed, with titles like Chase Me, Comrade! and Run For Your Wife, it would seem that all of his work does. Either that, or he took The Producers too seriously and is setting out to write deliberately unfunny comedies. Because Bride, which he wrote with John Chapman in 1974 and of which a tedious film version was made in 1980 starring Tom Smothers and Twiggy, just doesn't show signs of life until the second act -- as is made too clear in a well-intentioned production at California Conservatory Theatre in San Leandro.
So there's a bride in the title, but the story's really about an overworked ad executive trying to snag a big account with a bra manufacturer. Timothy Westerby is trying to close the deal on the same day his daughter is getting married. In the welter of activity, Westerby hits his head and begins hallucinating a lissome young flapper named Polly. Concerned for his sanity, Westerby's family tries bravely to move ahead with the wedding, but they just can't seem to get into the hired cars that will take them to the church. Instead everyone -- Westerby's wife, daughter, business partner, and in-laws -- bumbles in and out of the living room, picking things up and putting them down, drinking heavily, and repeating themselves. Meanwhile, the vicar is wondering where everyone is, and Westerby is doing the Charleston with his invisible girlfriend (he can see her, and so can we, but that's it).
And that's the frenetically unfunny first act. Even with the perfectly hilarious Pat Parker as mother-in-law Daphne, bedecked in a marabou-trimmed tentlike thing and a bonnet that looks like a collision between a pincushion and a wedding cake, the cast can't rescue the show from Cooney's dull writing and slow opening. Things pick up in the second act, when some of the groundwork laid in the first finally pays off, and the misdirection and mistaken identity cards get played more fully: Westerby's wife Ursula (Lynne McIntosh) pretending that her husband is actually his cousin, her husband's business partner pretending to be her husband, and the whole family pretending that they can see the flapper Polly when they can't. The dialogue and the pacing of the story itself get better; it's like Cooney woke up for the second act.
Tom Flynn is dear as Ursula's forgetful father Dr. Drimmond, and gets some of the best lines, especially when it comes to making fun of getting his wife into her corset. Some of the other men take a while to hit their stride; Eric Wenburg's Westerby begins as a cipher but gets more interesting the more often he gets hit, and while Eric Newman's Bill Shorter is flat in the first act, he's more engaged and sympathetic in the second.
Comedy is hard, no question, and farce is harder yet; the balance of text, talent, and pacing has to be perfect. Director Linda Piccone and her actors make a committed effort here, but the material just isn't that strong. While patient audiences may find the madcap second act worth the slog of the first act, this is one of the lesser British farces.
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