Remember how last season's "Noises Off" began with a scene from a perfectly terrible farce called "Nothing On"? For a good part of the first act, it seems possible that the Ahmanson's new show, "The Unvarnished Truth," is using the same gimmick. A comedy about a mystery writer who bumps off both his wife and his mother-in-law within 20 minutes of each other, each time by mistake? Come off it. They'll get to the real play in a minute.
But they're serious. That is, they're not serious; but the play we are seeing is the play we are stuck with. And the "fun" gets more and more farfetched, with the writer's nasty landlady also taking a fatal conk on the head, and the arrival of a police lieutenant afflicted with Saint Vitus' dance, and the maid pretending not to notice a thing until she gets struck by lightning.
Quite a misogynistic little piece. Still, one can imagine laughing at "The Unvarnished Truth" if one were to run into it in some damp little theater on the English coast, presented by the kind of British touring company immortalized in "Noises Off." The accents and the attitudes would be right, and one might well be taken with the sheer disrepute of British low comedy--the stuff that doesn't get on "Masterpiece Theatre."
But it's a scurviness that can't be faked. The first mistake in the Ahmanson's production is to try to pretend that the story could happen in Westchester County. This results in such extraterrestrial mutants as a landlady named Mrs. Plimpton-Strutt, with an accent that's strictly Miami Beach (Ruth Jaroslow). It also results in rather too many jokes about sex in dog masks. Without having the exact figures, I don't believe it's that popular in Westchester.
The production's second mistake is in casting John Ritter as the bumbling mystery writer. As was clear far before he struck it big with "Three's Company," Ritter is a charming light-comedy actor. But he's not cold-blooded enough for this kind of farce. We simply can't see him as a guy who'd get a sneaky thrill out of stuffing his wife's corpse into the bathroom--followed by his mother-in-law's corpse. Terry-Thomas, yes, but not our Jack.
"We" means the reviewer, not the Ahmanson audience, which screamed with laughter whenever encouraged to do so on opening night. Take the scene where James Coco as the writer's hysterical agent (by this time everyone's hysterical) has to rearrange the sprawling limbs of the expired mother-in-law (Dody Goodman). "Close her legs!" yells Ritter, but the old bat's legs keep popping open. Big yocks.
There's a lot of this kind of thing in "The Unvarnished Truth," which goes to show how far we have come from the days when Joe Orton's death farces were considered a bit risky even for fringe theaters. Orton, however, was a writer who truly did see death as a macabre joke, and whose corpses really were corpses. Ryton's play uses death as a gimmick--a "dirty" subject to be played with and then, in a not very tricky trick ending, denied. To each his own.
What can be admired in this witless and synthetic evening? Only the aplomb with which Robert Drivas' actors go about the job of tucking some real wit under their lines. Paul Benedict, for instance, detonates some funny tics as the weird lieutenant. James Coco suffers soulfully as Ritter's agent, the one character whose transplant seems to take. Mel Johnson isn't at all bad as Ritter's "fourth-best friend," who just happens to be on the police force.
The women aren't especially funny. But they do evoke a certain sympathy, especially Beth Howland as Ritter's wife. Probably it's because they're so contemptuously used in the script. Preposterous without being amusing, "The Unvarnished Truth" has a nastiness akin to that of "A Little Family Business," which, come to think of it, also premiered at this theater. When it comes to comedy, perhaps the Ahmanson should stick with Neil Simon. 'THE UNVARNISHED TRUTH'
Royce Ryton's comedy, presented by Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson. Director Robert Drivas. Scenery Richard Seger. Costumes Robert Blackman. Lighting Martin Aronstein. With John Ritter, James Coco, Beth Howland, Dody Goodman, Paul Benedict, Ruth Jaroslow, Carol Morley, Eda Zahl, Mel Johnson Jr., Arthur Grethel, Liz Sheridan. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes Nov. 16. At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 410-1062.