Smelling a Rat

Presented by The New Group at The Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42 St. (in the Theatre Row Complex), NYC, May 19-July 14.

Director Scott Elliott has called Mike Leigh's 1988 "Smelling a Rat" an "anti-farce." It has as its protracted conceit that, instead of the farcical staple of doors suddenly popping open, these doors stay resolutely closed for a long time. Extermination magnate Rex (Terence Rigby) returns home from a Christmas vacation abroad and, upon hearing voices, packs a gun and hides in a closet. Enter Vic (Brian F. O'Byrne), who works for Rex and his wife, Charmaine (Gillian Foss). Ostensibly there to check on the house, they sit on the bed and ruminate on Life. Upon hearing voices, they too disappear into another closet, as Rex's sullen and silent son Rock (Eddie Kaye Thomas) enters with his ditzy, upper-class girlfriend, Melanie-Jane (Michelle Williams). They slowly reveal their mismatched relationship. Consequently, there's more waiting here for persons to come out of the closet than in a sexual revolution.

The playwright teases with this set-up, giving each pair a scene in which he celebrates working-class language. Vic is a mess of mixed metaphors, Rock blurts out useless observations—"Jogging causes depression"—while Melanie-Jane is a fountain of the inane: "I went to a bullfight…it gave me a toothache." Leigh's word games demand utter authenticity, but here they mostly get well-intentioned approximations—the rhythms are never quite right. As a result, these scenes are long on longueur, and tedium often sits center stage on the ever-present double bed. Leigh also flirts with a serious (and nasty) subtext and then airily discards it.

This is the third Leigh comedy The New Group has revived—it has to be wondered whether attention would now be paid had Leigh not achieved film fame. Still, it allows two women to shine: Foss' totally authentic Charmaine is a delight to listen to, while Williams is the surprise, revealing the makings of a first-class creative comedienne.