SAN DIEGO — Let it be said at the outset: Paxton Whitehead, Jim Piddock, Jerry Pavlon and bom Lacy are unmistakably talented comedians. Whether or not a slightly dated "Beyond the Fringe" is still worthy material for this quartet is another matter.
With four trumpeters in the courtyard to herald the opening of the Old Globe Theatre's summer season, a 25-year anniversary revival of the comic revue debuted Wednesday in the Cassius Carter Centre Stage.
"Fringe" was written in 1960 by Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore at the suggestion of John Bassett, who conceived the project as an official, late-night revue for the Edinburgh Festival. Bassett hoped it would overshadow the unsanctioned "fringe" productions sprouting up around the theater festival.
In 1964, Whitehead, who directed the current revival, joined the first American touring company of "Fringe," which by then had moved from London to eager acceptance on Broadway. When Miller left the Broadway cast, Whitehead was called to fill the gap in the Cook-Bennett-Moore fraternity.
This is not the first time Globe audiences have been presented with this sampler of British humor. In 1972, an edition featuring "new" sketches was staged in the Carter.
But Whitehead has restored much of the original, Edinburgh material for his revival, selecting favorites-only from the newer skits and boldly ignoring the mothballs clinging to the others.
Four television screens suspended above Alan K. Okazaki's cooly stylized, gray-swirled setting in the intimate Carter help establish the right time frame, with black-and-white clips of Elvis, John F. Kennedy, royal processions and old movies. The prime minister trimmed and tied by these sardonic wits is named Macmillan, and the war at issue is World War II.
But decades-old topical references are bearable enough. It's the style that seems stale. What was fresh, cheeky, irreverent and shocking in 1960 has been much imitated, mass produced and televised by 1986, courtesy Benny Hill, Monty Python, Douglas Adams and company--and with the flashy excess that state-of-the-art video has afforded them.
So four gray-suited Englishmen (genuine or pseudo) doing controlled, measured, satirical sketches with undiluted British references--no matter how masterfully executed--takes some shifting of mind-set before the humor takes hold.
Whether or not the sense of silliness finally ignites is a vastly individual situation. It all depends upon how much one appreciates British humour (emphasis on the o-u-r , as in, dour ).
Everyone knows the people on that island are capable of laughing at some things we Americans find to be in horribly poor taste. "Civil Defense" (a ludicrous skit about the usefulness of large brown paper bags in nuclear holocausts), the "Death of Lord Nelson" (some nonsense about a deathbed kiss), "One Leg Too Few" (about an amputee audition), and "The Suspense Is Killing Me" (capital punishment) really test one's righteous indignation. To laugh or not to laugh? That is the moralistic question.
But Whitehead, Lacy, Piddock and Pavlon eventually wear down the strongest of wills. These gentlemen possess some powerful comic tools. They are disgusting and lovable--brilliant, actually. They outshine the material 400 to 1.
Globe audiences have long recognized Lacy's talent, and they'll delight in Whitehead's mockery of his last appearance here as Richard III, the capper on a jolly romp over Shakespeare's hallowed territory.
Pavlon smoothly follows Dudley Moore's fingerprints across the piano keyboard (cleverly concealed in Okazaki's set) and into our hearts, while Piddock delivers the evening's prize, a coal miner's hilarious, droll monologue, "Sitting on the Bench."
It was especially fun to watch Piddock make it through that lengthy dissertation--audience roaring--without cracking a wrinkle, then later dissolve into uncontrollable, but heroically suppressed, giggles at his own mugging in the finale skit--triggering a ripple of lost composure among the others.
Whitehead has trouble keeping his actors visible in the Carter's 360-degree setting. He is more actor than director in this case, too often abandoning the stage and placing his cast "safely" in the corner aisles.
Costumer Steven Rubin was little challenged to outfit the quartet in shades of gray, but delivers some wonderful hats for the Shakespeare sketch. Michael Holten's video excerpts help bring "Fringe" into the '80s and take audiences back to the '60s. John B. Forbes' lighting is as straightforward as the gray set and costumes.
"Beyond the Fringe" relies heavily on the strengths of its performers--no fancy scenery, costumes, score, or "chorus girls" to clutter or brighten things up, which, according to author Peter Cook, was originally more economic necessity than artistic choice.
No matter. This quartet delivers. Even those who don't find all of the jokes to be amusing, who would prefer fresh material over a sentimental replay, will enjoy watching these grown men at play. They are masters of foolishness.
"BEYOND THE FRINGE" By Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. Directed by Paxton Whitehead. Scenic design by Alan K. Okazaki. Costume design by Steven Rubin. Lighting design by John B. Forbes. Sound design by Corey L. Fayman. Stage manager, Maria Carrera. With Tom Lacy, Jerry Pavlon, Jim Piddock, Paxton Whitehead. In repertory through Aug. 31, at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park. Produced by the Old Globe Theatre.