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A CurtainUp Review
Smelling a Rat
He's a perpetrator, not an exterminator. He takes advantage of people's fear of crawling things.
---Vic Maggot, the aptly named employee about his even more aptly named boss, Rex Weasel.
L-R: Gillian Foss, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Terence Rigby, Brian F. O'Byrne (Photo: Carol Rosegg )
"An Englishman's home is his castle even if it's a pre-fab." Having made his fortune in the exterminating business Rex Weasel, the Englishman who prompts this observation by Vic Maggot, the comic lowbrow philosopher of Smelling a Rat, makes sure his castle is looked after when he's on vacation. The underling assigned to this task, has enlisted Vic and his wife Charmaine to take over for him on Christmas day. In the meantime, Mrs. Weasel has given a key to Rocky, the son from whom Rex is estranged.

Thus, while monthly spraying may keep the exterminating tycoon's pre-fab vermin free, it does not prevent homo sapiens from entering the premises with keys its owner did not intend them to have. But even before the Maggots or son Rocky arrive, the lord of the manor returns prematurely from a golfing vacation. The sound of the key in the door and voices in the hallway sends Weasel scurrying for the closet -- but not before grabbing variation of the tool of his trade, a real gun.

And there you have the premise of Mike Leigh's spin on the kid caught with his fingers in the cookie jar -- the kids in this case being the working class Maggots plus Rocky and Melanie-Jane (the upper class dumb blonde with whom he intends to have sex on mum and dad's king-sized bed). Dad's arrival sends Vic and Charmaine into two of the remaining closets. As the symbolism of Mike Leigh's character naming conventions is as transparent as the water in the apartment's bathroom bidet, so are the farcical complications inherent in Rex's unexpectedly aborted holiday and the truths that are revealed to these "skeletons" in the closet.

Like Goose-Pimples, Leigh's last outing with the New Group and its director Scott Elliott, Smelling a Rat has late '80s social class underpinnings. It again has all the hallmarks of a farce but manages to break most of the genre's rules. Designer Kevin Price's pre-fab apartment provides more than the requisite doors for a farce along with lots of character-revealing at an unfarcically slow pace. This slow motion tempo is established during first scene when Rex unpacks silently and during the seemingly endless minutes of absolute darkness and silence that follow. The idea is to translate the chaos of traditional farce into character building emotional chaos. Rex, seen as abusive and exploitative by his employee and son, is in turn abused by an alcoholic, cheating wife (Mrs. Weasel's latest spree is the reason for the prematurely ended golf holiday). Vic's inability to stand up to Weasel is tied to his own troubled childhood while Melanie-Jane's seemingly happier relationship with her "daddy" includes a recollection of his hitting her on the head for setting the table with the knives where the forks should go.

Don't expect all the dysfunctional relationships and mishaps to ring the curtain down on a happy ending. While Smelling a Rat isn't a particularly profound comedy, it is definitely colored black. In short, like Goose-Pimples, this is once again an anti-farce. Even more than that comedy it is a mixed pleasure. Mr. Leigh definitely has a way with conversations so incredibly mundane that they are funny, but the sum of the most amusing interchanges tends to be offset by too many tediously slow, static patches.

While to most people, Leigh is best known for his film work (e.g. Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy), he has been working in the theater since the 1970s. His early plays were ad hoc and not committed to paper. Smelling a Rat (written in 1988) is in print, though it takes seeing actors in tune with Leigh's sensibility to appreciate its quirky, black humor. Fortunately, the cast Mr. Elliott has assembled has Leigh-perfect pitch. Leading the ensemble are the two actors whose characters have the most to lose from Rex's eavesdropping.

Michelle Williams
Michelle Willians
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Brian F. O'Byrne, tremendously touching as the last-chance lover in The Beauty Queen of Leenane and a comic model of old-maidish prissiness in Lonesome West, now plays Vic with the off-beat wit of John Cleese (whom he resembles) in Fawlty Towers. Gillian Foss, who contributed to the success of Goose-Pimples, is once again ideally cast as Vic's mate.

Michelle Williams (a draw for Dawson's Creek fans who stepped in during rehearsals for Cara Seymour), creates a memorable high-strung ditzy blonde on a par with Seymour's Goose-Pimples blonde. As both Charmaine and Melanie-Jane are given to typically Leigh bursts of giggles, Eddie Kay Thomas's Rocky personifies almost catatonic sullenness which are interspersed with periodic nonsequiturs (e.g.: "There are over three million prostitutes in Thailand"). Terrence Rigby's Rex veers from cursing his son like a character out of Shakespeare ("You great streak of yellow piss") to droll old dad -- as when he stumbles upon Rocky and Melanie making love and drily says "if it wasn't my bed you were in I'd aplogize".

Despite the excellent performances, only Foss and O'Byrne come across as flesh and blood people. They also have the best dialogue and scenes. Foss's attempts to persuade Melanie Jane to come out of the bathroom, while Vic carries on a conversation with Rex is Smelling a Rat at its best.

Asked in a Time Out interview about frustrations with theater over film, Leigh answered: "When I make a film such as Secrets and Lies it talks to a hell of a lot of people worldwide, and taps into a huge number of people's preoccupations and problems. On another level--and, no disrespect to the audiences that will go to the Beckett Theatre--we can only presuppose that it will be to some considerable degree a rarefied, educated, middle-class audience." True enough. Smelling a Rat not only lacks the breadth and apeal of that film but, even within that "rarified" audience segment, will send only some out of the Beckett Theatre aching with laughter and a sense of having been caught up in a fully satisfying play.

Since Smelling a Rat marks the opening of the Beckett Theatre, a word about this space is in order. It is one of five comfortable, 99-stadium-seat venues sharing the same roof and lobby of the new Theatre Row Complex. Once all five theaters are fully operational this will be a most welcome addition to the west 42nd Street scene.


Smelling a Rat
Written by Mike Leigh
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Cast: Gillian Foss, Brian O'Byrne, Terence Rigby, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Michelle Williams.
Set Design: Kevin Price
Costume Design: Eric Becker
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Music: Tom Kochan.
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission
Samuel Beckett, 410 W/ 42nd Street, 212-279-4200
5/07/02-6/16/02; opening 5/19/02.
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm --$32 - $40

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 15 preview performance.
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