Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 33
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
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MARITAL MIX-UPS: Margot (Beverly Robinovitz), a suspicious mother-in-law, interrogates Pete (Ryan Correll, center) and his friend George (Barry Abramowitz), as Pete suddenly finds himself married to two women at the same time.

Yikes, Two Wives! First Wife, Presumed Dead, Suddenly Returns; Off-Broadstreet in Hopewell Presents Entertaining Bedroom Farce

Donald Gilpin

Pete has a problem. He’s happily married to Sarah, but has just found out that his first wife Jessica, presumed dead from a mountain climbing accident, is alive and well and eager to return to her life with Pete. Suddenly, Pete finds himself confronting two wives, neither of whom knows about the other.

The classic elements of bedroom farce — no bedroom and no slamming doors, but plenty of coincidences, improbabilities, assorted romantic pairings, mistaken identities, double entendres, and absurdity — spring forth from this dilemma, as Pete, with help from his slow-witted old friend and best man (twice) George, frenetically struggles to explain himself to both women.

Closing out the summer season with a light touch, the Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell is presenting Derek Benfield’s First Things First through September 10, directed and designed by Robert Thick and featuring a spirited ensemble of six. Character development? Nope. Thought-provoking subject matter? Nope. Slice-of-life realism? Nope. Meaningful themes and psychological insight? Not much. This is pure farce, in the spirit of many TV sitcoms, fueled by its own outrageous implausibility and designed for hilarity and entertainment.

Mr. Thick, in his 28th year at the helm of Off-Broadstreet, knows his craft. The pace is swift, the comic timing is sharp, the characters are lively and congenial, and the laughs are abundant.

Mr. Benfield, renowned British farceur whose Bedside Manners (1986) played successfully at Off-Broadstreet in 2010, was the author of more than 30 stage plays, and was best known for his performances on British television and on stage in various repertory companies and in the West End. First Things First was published in 2007, just two years before his death.

Mr. Thick’s First Things First, with a few adaptations in language and geography from Mr. Benfield’s British original, takes place in the living room of Pete and Sarah’s house in Stamford, Connecticut. As the play starts, Pete (Ryan Correll) is engaged in the difficult process of getting his wife Sarah (Jennifer Newby) and her overbearing, suspicious mother (Beverly Robinovitz) out the door to a social gathering with one of Sarah’s friends.

George (Barry Abramowitz) is on the way over with a secret that he must tell Pete without Sarah around. Sarah and Margot leave. George arrives, and quickly tells Pete that not only is Pete’s first wife Jessica (Katie Munley) alive (despite her reported death almost two years earlier), but she is ready to resume her marriage with Pete, and she is about to arrive at his house.

Jessica, with a couple of secrets of her own, arrives. Pete, with mixed feelings, can’t bring himself to reveal his double marital status to either wife. He panics, and, with George’s help, weaves an increasingly complex web of lies as he attempts to respond to the suspicious women’s questioning. By the end of the first of the two acts, the frantic young husband has both of his wives believing that the other woman is in fact married to George.

Outrageousness and confusion rule. Double takes, shocked expressions, furrowed brows, suspicious glances and apprehensive looks abound, but amidst all this silliness there are many funny moments, and the audience’s curiosity craves satisfaction. How will this chaos be resolved? How much longer can Pete perform this juggling act without telling Sarah and Jessica the truth? What will happen when he does, or when they find out? Will Pete end up with Sarah? Jessica? Neither? Both?

And as the plot finally works itself out in the second act, Jessica’s new boyfriend Alan (Keegan McDonald) appears, the truth comes out (As George says, “It’s confession time.”), and First Things First arrives at its happy and satisfying resolution.

All six veteran performers here are appropriately cast and well rehearsed, but Mr. Abramowitz is the expert at creating a sympathetic, funny, and dynamic character while delivering this particular type of broad humor with a virtuoso’s touch. Moment to moment, throughout his expressions of surprise, alarm, amusement and horror, Mr. Abramowitz’ George is thoroughly entertaining to watch. George is particularly amusing as he strains to keep up with his friend Pete’s fabrications, good naturedly trying to support Pete’s increasingly extravagant stories and play the latest role — wife to Sarah? wife to Jessica? — that Pete has devised for him. Recalling the comic genius of Brad Garrett from the TV series Everybody Loves Raymond, Mr. Abramowitz’s rough-hewn, slow-witted, endearingly down-to-earth characterization richly complements his spot-on comic timing,

As the beleaguered accidental bigamist, Mr. Correll is likeable, amusing, and suitably expressive in his frenetic attempts to spin plausible explanations in response to the three inquisitorial women.

Ms. Newby and Ms. Munley are effectively in character, attractive and convincing as the rival spouses, the former particularly interesting as her suspicions are aroused, the latter especially adept in carrying her own secrets, then caught in her own ethical problem. The action takes a memorable turn when the two actually team up to concoct a suitable resolution for Pete’s dilemma.

Ms. Robinovitz suffers some unevenness in diction and characterization — occasional ends of lines thrown away — but creates a formidably harsh and imperious mother-in-law, while Mr. McDonald, appearing only in the final scene, may not seem like an entirely convincing justification for Jessica’s abandonment of her marriage on a Himalyan mountaintop, but nonetheless helps to provide a happy resolution to this particularly tangled plot.

Mr. Thick’s set, with colorful and appealing art work by Ken McIndoe, nice-looking furniture and carpets, entrances to the outside, upstairs, and the kitchen, is appropriately bright, well-appointed and functional as the site for the often complicated action of the play.

First Things First, skillfully staged by Mr. Thick, provides enjoyable late-summer entertainment. In keeping with the Off-Broadstreet dessert theatre motif, there are no meat and potatoes here, but the dessert offerings and the theatrical attractions make for a tasty and pleasant evening — satisfying to the palate and the funny bone, if not to the body, mind, and soul.

“First Things First” will continue at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell through September 10, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Dessert is served from an hour before curtain time. Call (609) 466-2766 for reservations and further information.

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