Farce fanatics (you know who you are) should hie themselves hence to Oak Brook for Paul Slade Smith's blissfully nonsensical comedy about a sting operation gone — wait for it — awry. If you're not a fan of the genre, well, the title alone should be enough to warn you what you're in for and you can stop reading here.
Smith, a onetime Chicagoan, has had productions of "Unnecessary Farce" all over the U.S., as well as in Europe and Australia, but Alison C. Vesely's staging for First Folio Theatre marks the area premiere. It's a comic mystery why a local producer with crowd-pleasing sensibilities hasn't picked up on this 2006 show (which premiered at Michigan's now-defunct BoarsHead Theater) earlier. The production captures Smith's so-dumb-it's-delightful sweet spot in this portrait of two inept cops sent to entrap the town mayor (who is suspected of embezzling from the municipal budget) with the help of a comely female accountant.
Set in mirror-image rooms of a cheap chain motel (Angela Miller's picture-perfect set keeps the crucial door-slamming action smooth), the action opens with Kevin McKillip's Officer Eric Sheridan struggling to get into his clothes while juggling a phone call from the never-seen "chief" who has sent Sheridan and his female partner, Officer Billie Dwyer (the magnificent Erin Noel Grennan), out on the operation. A video camera in the adjacent room will capture the sting and serve as its own plot device. But shy Sheridan has tongue-tied romantic designs on accountant Karen (Molly Glynn), while the mayor's bodyguard, Agent Frank (Raymond Fox), has his own conflicted agenda. Toss in a fearsome enforcer with a taste for bagpipes (Joe Foust) and things go into the usual tailspin of mistaken identities, hyperactive plot twists, and bedroom romps that are not what they appear to be.
Brainy fare this isn't — but I've come to appreciate just how damnably difficult it can be to get this kind of theatrical souffle to the table without one too many door-slams deflating the entire enterprise. Vesely has picked some of the smartest actors around for this high-spirited goof.
McKillip's rubbery physique and deer-in-headlights countenance mesh beautifully with Grennan's Billie (Grennan originated the role at BoarsHead), who shows unexpected pluck despite her seemingly career-killing phobias about guns and enclosed spaces. Just watching Grennan's face (mid-doughnut bite, natch) as she observes unexpected developments on the video monitor offers a master class in nonverbal comic reaction. Fox, on loan from Lookingglass Theatre, gets a chance to show off broad chops I've not seen from him before, and Dale Benson as Mayor Meekly brings a touch of Henry Gibson's otherwordly fey charm to his confused civil servant. To say too much about Foust's best moments would probably wreck the joy of discovering them on your own.
Smith works in one or two theatrical meta moments. While watching Sheridan and Karen's assignation on camera, under the impression that it's a naughty adult film, Benson's mayor observes, "People running in and out of rooms taking off their clothes — that hardly passes for a plot." There are a few wheel-spinning moments, but in the main, this is a show that's unafraid to strip down to its silly undergarments to deliver uncomplicated laughs in a complicated setting.
When: Through March 4
Where: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Illinois Highway 83, Oak Brook
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $30-$37 at 630-986-8067 and firstfolio.org