Three's a crowd

When people say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” they’re usually referring to a degree of quality: They don’t make them as well as they used to. But every now and then, you see something that reminds you there are certain things we just don’t do anymore. They’ve fallen out of fashion or become a lost art, and every year they fade a little bit more from the collective cultural memory.

Thankfully, we have places like the Sheldon Vexler Theater to help us remember why we loved them. The Vex’s current production, Run For Your Wife, dusts off the Screwball Comedy, which had its heyday in the ’30s and ’40s. Entrances and exits, mistaken identities, double entendres and sight gags — these are the tools that writers, directors, and performers used to construct comedy with craftsman-like precision. In these modern times, when “funny people” sit around and talk about being funny, it’s refreshing and rejuvenating to see a show where the comedy runs like a finely tuned Rube Goldberg machine.

This is the story of John Smith, an ordinary cab driver from London in a very extraordinary set of circumstances. Everyone knows (in a farcically stereotypical way) that the Brits are stuffy about keeping to their “shedjules” — Mary Poppins and all that — but John is punctuality personified. He has to be, since he divides his time precisely between two wives, neither of whom knows that the other exists. He explains how he got himself in this predicament with affable bemusement, much the way a normal person would describe ending up with two of the same shirt. Here is a man who pleasantly goes about a reprehensibly deceitful lifestyle and suffers nary a negative consequence, but when he tries to be a model citizen in the smallest of ways — rescuing an old lady who is being mugged — he suffers an injury that derails his whole scheme ... at the hands of the old lady. Or handbag, rather. Such is the life of a screwball anti-hero. The following morning, he discovers that both his addresses ended up in the hospital’s records, and suddenly “the fuzz” are on his case. Not to mention the press. And a nosy neighbor. The ball has been set in motion, and John is screwed.

The relative closeness of John’s two worlds is displayed perfectly by Ken Frazier’s set design. The entire expanse of the stage forms one giant living room, which is meant to be two — one for Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Wimbledon and another for the Smiths of Streatham. No partitions divide them, and a perfectly played opening scene, in which dialogue overlaps and paths cross, makes the audience wonder for a moment if this might be a Big Love situation. No such luck for John, played by Brandon Sasnett, who is a dead ringer for the Brit I would cast if Hollywood made a version of this: Simon Pegg. His performance captures the perfect balance of panic and optimism — just when we think he’s ready to give up and turn himself in, the glimmer of illicit living reappears in his eyes as he thinks of one more ploy to keep the game going. Characteristic of farce, this is all a game. As the director’s note in the program points out, we’re allowed to enjoy a scenario that would be tragically painful in real life, in part because it unfolds with such painfully funny unbelievability.

For anyone who has gone to the movies in the last, oh, 10 years, and pondered how many plots would fall apart without the presence of cell phones, this will be a humorous flashback to the days before caller ID. Ray Cooney’s script, written in the early ’80s, makes frequent use of the old rotary dial landline, complete with a room-length cord, and the cast displays a nimble command of stage direction and dialogue. The English accents are a bit broad, with one notable exception: Rob Barron in the role of Detective Sergeant Troughton. His clipped, understated delivery is perfectly suited to the “inspector” character, whose intelligence is a few notches above the lot he’s entangled with. But in the end, no one escapes without playing the fool.

Run for Your Wife

Through Sep 13
The Sheldon Vexler Theatre


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