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Posthumous premiere

Former Python's O Happy Day heavy on farce, light on absurdism

On "Monty Python," Graham Chapman often portrayed the ramrod-stiff British officer who'd intrude on the other members of the comedy group and stop the proceedings when they "got too silly." Chapman himself, though, was one of the most frivolous of the Flying Circus, and certainly no one put the breaks on the whimsy of his play O Happy Day. O Happy Day's silliness, however, is a parrot of a different color than that of the Python's movies and TV series. It rarely demonstrates the absurdist flights and gleeful hostility of the troupe, fitting more comfortably in the traditions of British stage farce, like Joe Orton in a nonconfrontational mood. It's perhaps best likened to a drawn-out episode of "Fawlty Towers," the Britcom created by Chapman's writing partner, John Cleese.
Fortune brought O Happy Day's unproduced script, written by Chapman with Barry Cryer, to Dad's Garage Theater, which is offering a posthumous premiere (Chapman died in 1989). The young company brings its characteristic energy to the feather-light material, which builds to some big laughs, but the most interesting part of the play is who wrote it.
Tippling Tommy Simpson (Doyle Reynolds) is a would-be inventor who's rigged his suburban English home with malfunctioning gizmos such as collapsible tables that really collapse. He wakes up on his dangerous, convertible sofa when his wife (Josie Burgin Lawson) reminds him it's the day of her brother's wedding. But the Simpsons have some questions about the impending nuptials: With the bride in an advanced state of pregnancy, is brother Keith (Matthew Stanton) the father? Or is he gay?
The first act unfolds gradually, heavily hitting the exposition, with uptight Tommy trying to broach the awkward subjects with Keith. Though set in 1977, the nearly 25-year-old play shows its age through its sexual politics, as Tommy ties himself into knots over some matters that now seem rather minor.
Complications include Tommy's meddling mother (Z Gillespie, sounding a bit like Terry Jones), whom he threatens to put in the cupboard, and the arrival of Brian (George Faughnan), a hulking but gentle Australian with unexpectedly intimate connections to both Barbara the bride (Alison Hastings) and Tommy himself. "What a strange person," Tommy says of Brian, echoing one of Chapman's lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The second act proves far more delirious as Barbara goes into labor, the mothers-in-law begin feuding and Tommy tries to maintain the appearance of normalcy.
Middle-class denial frequently makes an effective foil in comedies, but there's little going on in O Happy Day beyond Tommy trying to keep a lid on various secrets, which makes the proceedings a bit thin. When his disapproving boss (Tim Cordier) arrives on scene, it's like watching Darren trying to keep a secret from Mr. Tate on "Bewitched." The Tommy character is essentially the engine that drives the play, and its to Reynolds' credit that he can go the distance, demonstrating a virtuoso flair with nervous tics, stammering and self-interruptions.
The other characters are surprisingly low-key in comparison. Despite his over-sized "fat" suit, Faughnan's performance is uncharacteristically mild and sympathetic. Lawson essentially plays sunny and straight to Reynolds, while Stanton's ambisexual Keith is blithe but restrained. Sizable Christian Danley, in drag, offers the most outrageous performance as Tommy's shrewish mother-in-law.
O Happy Day's best aspects are its running jokes. The living room is wired for a floor tile to play "The Little Spanish Flea," and other pieces of furniture to emit the opening words of songs from "The Sound of Music." Each time one is activated, it gets a laugh. Some of the actresses get amusing bits of physical comedy, as when Reynolds and Stanton, carrying Hastings, yank her in opposite directions, or Kendra Myers, as the boss' drunken wife, does pratfalls that include Faughnan somersaulting over her. As a swinging doctor, Scott Warren gets a laugh just for his leisure suit. Director Sean Daniels helps set a madcap pace for the second act, and as the stage gets more crowded, the company performs plenty of funny, believable business in the background.
O Happy Day's strangely sudden ending emphasizes that Chapman died before adding some final polish. But even if the playwright had lived to shepherd it through its premiere, O Happy Day probably wouldn't be anything greater than the adequate comedy it is. Fans of British farce will find much to like about it, but it's ultimately a reminder that the Pythons together were greater than the sum of their parts.
O Happy Day plays through October at Dad's Garage Theatre Co., 280 Elizabeth St., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15-$20. 404-523-3141.



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