It’s no secret that the traditionally reserved British simply love being absurdly, totally, astonishingly silly. It’s something to do with the way they walk. And I would say that the pleasure and insane genius of the British import on Broadway, The Play What I Wrote -directed by Kenneth Branagh, no less-is its utter, ridiculous faith that silliness will prevail. And it does!
Now, exactly how the stars and perfect double act, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl-brilliantly assisted by Toby Jones, who almost makes it a trio-pull off this miracle is more difficult to say. Desperation would be a good place to start. No sane person goes out onstage to deliberately perform bad jokes and ancient slapstick routines. It takes courage to be really silly in public, and these lads are brave. It’s as if they’re saying to us: We are now going to throw ourselves at a brick wall until you laugh. And perhaps we think-when, say, one of the boys becomes a waiter on a bungee cord, or another performs truly awful barnyard impressions-that this isn’t ridiculous. It’s really ridiculous. And then something, some carefree release or manic magic takes over, and the laughter starts to roll.
Messrs. Foley and McColl are immensely talented, of course. But the idea is not to let it show. Consider, if you will, the premise to the show. The Play What I Wrote is a play within a play, in its pathetic way. Hamish, with his ambitions of becoming a famous semi-literate playwright, no longer wants to be part of his comedy team with Sean. He wants to see his history play, A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple -if you please-performed on Broadway instead. Hamish is to play the lead. But he’s also in search of a major star to perform the Scarlet Pimple’ s supporting role.
Hence the evening’s gimmick of its mystery guest star, who remains a tantalizing secret until he-or she-appears in Act II to be roasted like a good sport at a surreal garden fête. The night I attended, it was the dashing Kevin Kline who turned up in a frock looking like Barrymore. Ethel Barrymore. Mr. Kline, a born, sly comedian who happens to be among our finest stage actors, was a riot playing the slightly pompous classical ham speaking unspeakable lines. The boys referred to him respectfully as “Sir Kevin,” but they also seemed to get him confused with Patsy Cline, and then Calvin Klein.
The inspiration for The Play What I Wrote is Britain’s fabled double act, Morecambe and Wise, who became the most popular comics in history with their 1970’s TV show. Their roots, like the comic spirit within Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley today, are found among that great warrior class of entertainers and renegades of the music hall. As a child, I actually saw the unknown Morecambe and Wise onstage in Blackpool and, as I live and breathe, they were terrible. The compère announced, “And now a big, warm welcome for those up-and-coming lads, Morecambe and Wise!” I can still remember the groan that came from the audience. Even Jewel and Warris were considered preferable, and they were terrible, too.
Eventually, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise re-invented themselves and made it with the help of one of the most gifted scriptwriters in the land. Eddie Braben-I’m so glad to see-has written The Play What I Wrote with Mr. McColl and Mr. Foley. He knows what he’s doing! He spent 14 years writing for Eric and Ernie, and 12 years writing for the frenzied Liverpudlian Ken (Doddy) Dodd, who’s considered to be the greatest British stand-up comedian of them all. Doddy is another kind of loon, a court jester with electric hair who carries a tickling stick with him everywhere. “How tickled I am, missus!” he’d say to the lady in the front row, and then he’d go on making us laugh until it hurt and he ended the show with, “Do you give in?”
Coincidentally, Mike Nichols, a lead producer of The Play What I Wrote , is referred to as “Mr. Tickles.” This is the same Mike Nichols whose very name is accompanied everywhere by celestial choirs as all kneel-as I am reverentially kneeling now. He’s Mr. Tickles! They’ve given him a clown’s name! “Anything for a laugh,” as the line in the show goes.
Scholars in the field will note, for example, that Mr. Foley possesses an impressively rubbery repertoire of silly walks. It comes from a continuing, noble vaudevillian tradition of walking . Eric Morecambe walked funny. (Ernie didn’t; he was the straight man). There’s also John Cleese’s insane “Ministry of Silly Walks” in Monty Python , of course, which links to the great Max Wall’s deranged walk from the music-hall era-which is impersonated by Mr. Foley to drum rolls in the show-and that, in turn, grew out of the tradition known as “eccentric dancing,” or a half-walk, half-dance that made you laugh.
It still does. I’m honor-bound, however, to correct our man at The Times for his killjoy criticism of Prince Charles’ well-known enthusiasm for The Play What I Wrote. To say that it’s “a bit like having Hulk Hogan endorsing a hairdresser” doesn’t bring the house down, exactly. But the ponderous Times doesn’t get the importance of silliness or Prince Charles. His Royal Highness, if I may so, was raised on the legendary 1950’s Goon Show , the radio show starring the young Peter Sellers and a mad genius named Spike Milligan (who was mad). It was the original, inspired liberator of British stuffiness that begat Monty Python via the national appetite for silliness personified by loonies. Prince Charles has made his mistakes, but he loves goons, and that’s why he loves The Play What I Wrote , and why I shall be receiving my knighthood shortly.
The art of the silly takes the sting out of things. Americans know its secret power, too. Look at the great tradition of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, or Abbott and Costello. But silliness is a British specialty, puncturing pomposity and self-importance. The traditional British defense is to adopt the middle ground between success and failure. The middle ground is where you’re free to make a total idiot of yourself instead. It’s reckless, and it’s harmless. It appears to be amateur. In the hands of Messrs. McColl, Foley and Jones, it’s also innocent.
Hamish and Sean share a bed together onstage, but there’s no suggestion of sex. In the sweet essentials, they’re charming innocents, guileless and out-of-time, as if they’ve taken us into a comic zone that doesn’t exist anywhere else. At the close, the two of them pay warm tribute to the memory of their heroes, Morecambe and Wise, by singing their hallowed, sentimental theme song:
Make me happy
Through the years
Never bring me
Let your arms be as warm
As the sun from up above
Bring me fun
Bring me sunshine
Bring me love
Silly, isn’t it? But if it’s so silly, why were we all beaming?