So Farce, So Good

If there's a good reason why almost no one writes or produces farce anymore, I wish someone would share it with me. My fondness for all things foolhardy and my affection for excellent playwriting are among the reasons I'm so pleased to have seen Steven Dietz's Over the Moon, the ideal comic farce that's kicked off Arizona Theatre Company's new season.

Dietz's hyper-stylish, super-intelligent, arch and witty script is the Seattle playwright's fifth piece to be commissioned by ATC. Adapted from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, The Small Bachelor, Over the Moon is -- like the very best farces -- lousy with erroneous identities. There's the manicurist who's really a fortuneteller; a cop who wants to be a poet; a journalist impersonating a fop; a rich old city slicker who'd rather be a cowboy, and a con man who wants to go straight.

The story's about a young artist (played by the none-too-young but still comically expert R. Hamilton Wright) whose attempts at wooing a socialite (lovely Liz McCarthy) are foiled by the lady's parents, his valet, his best friend, and a sniffy British manservant, among others. The principals almost never get where they're going; every moment is played for big, broad laughs; and if Over the Moon is never truly hilarious, it also never sits still long enough to be dull.

David Ira Goldstein was born to direct Dietz's work, and their pairing here is part of why this complicated comedy works so well. Goldstein knows that farce is difficult to pull off -- it's easy to play it too big and ruin a laugh, yet nothing's played small in farce -- and he's managed to balance a mess of comic exits and witty repartee with over-the-top performances that remain warm and familiar.

Goldstein has assembled an amazing cast of A-List clowns who can define a character with a single withering look (David Pichette as that snooty valet) or an expert turn of phrase (Bob Sorenson, who plays the best friend, reads Dietz's dialogue as if it were written especially for him). Suzy Hunt is a daffy dowager (think Lucile Watson in all those old MGM drawing room comedies) and Wright epitomizes the sort of Cowardesque dandy who helped bring the form to life way back when. Everyone's funny, and no one's reaching to be the funniest, which makes it all come together in a spectacular way.

All 10 actors are given ample opportunity to shine, and each commands the stage at one point. But had the acting been dreary, Dietz's script been a turkey, or Goldstein's direction been dull, it still would have been worth the trip to see David Kay Mickelsen's magnificent costuming. Mickelsen's is a Technicolor primer of Roaring Twenties high fashion, his men resplendent in zippy zoot suits and waistcoats; his flappers fashionable in modish day dresses, chic evening gowns and expertly exaggerated millinery.

Over the Moon's opening night audience cared less about the costumes than the comedy, and there was plenty of that to keep them happy. While Dietz's success here won't revive the farce, it does stand as a rare and satisfying example of a great and mostly overlooked comic genre.

E-mail [email protected]