Pedophilia is no laughing matter. Everyone draws the line at that one, 24/7.
How, then, does playwright Anthony Neilson manage to coax audiences around this discomforting fact and make so many friends? In his The Lying Kind, now at TheatreWorks through Dec. 21, he's doing just that — and for the second time.
On board recommendation, artistic director Murray Ross scheduled Neilson's "black comedy" again for the holidays, six years after it first appeared at TheatreWorks. And in his lengthy program note, Ross himself seems puzzled by the phenomenon, with "seeing wild and wonderful farce bubble up from the well of tragedy."
In The Lying Kind, two endearing London bobbies (Sammie Joe Kinnett and Steven Cole Hughes) sort of Abbott-and-Costello their way into the cozy Connor home, after much hemming and hawing over their odious, official task. It seems the 34-year-old Connor daughter has expired in a traffic accident outside Bristol, and the pair must deliver the news. For the first 10 minutes they can't even bring themselves to ring the doorbell, let alone agree on the right words with which to inform the Connors.
They're brutally incentivized to proceed, however, by a roaming vigilante from PAPS, aka "Parents Against Pedophilic Scumbags," named Gronya (Emma Messenger). Confusion, mayhem, copious cussing and other forms of malarkey ensue in the Connors' home, where everything from cross-dressing vicars (Julian Bucknall) to dead Chihuahuas (uncredited) are put to use.
Kinnett and Hughes keep the action alive and moving, even as they sometimes work upstream; director Geoffrey Kent has the tendency to have characters sit when their words indicate they'd do otherwise. Things get a little snarly, too, when fast-paced. We lose ground figuring out which parent is insane versus merely stressed; whether it's the daughter or the Chihuahua that's actually dead; and whether Kinnett or Hughes should know the answers.
Technical missteps cause Kent's production to falter, too. Have we ever seen a snowless Christmas set? We have one here. In fact, the Tudor-style façade in Scene 1 gives off an almost tropical atmosphere, matched by temperate-weather police uniforms and Gronya's sleeveless denim. It's a globally warmed London Christmas for The Lying Kind.
Kent is former president of the Society of American Fight Directors, but his fight choreography here is stiff, predictable and stagy. Actors land on their backs or behinds, or anticipate the moves of others.
Yet memorable lines percolate from Neilson's script. "Haven't you ever been happy not knowing something?" Kinnett pleads with Hughes. "How would I know if I was happy not knowing something unless I knew what it was I didn't know?" Hughes replies, and he doesn't slip on a single syllable. Hughes has a consistency of delivery and Britishness throughout the show to rival John Cleese.
Messenger is a capable actress, and Gronya's crusade against marauding pedophiles never lets up on the accelerator. But her character is so revolting a presence that she essentially neutralizes child abuse as a social menace. As written, she's neither funny nor heroic, though Messenger does well in attempting both. With advocates like these, who needs enemies?