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by Alan Bennett
directed by Kristoffer Tabori

LINDSAY CROUSE and NANCY LENEHAN (Constance Wicksteed)
NEIL DUNCAN and COTTER SMITH (Canon Throbbing)
JOCELYN JONES (Standby for Constance)

L-R: Shirley Knight, Robert Foxworth, Charles Hallahan & Jennifer Bassey

Set Designers - Deborah Raymond & Dorian Vernacchio
Lighting Designer - Paulie Jenkins
Costume Designer - Todd Roehman
Composer - Ross Levinson
Sound Designer - Matthew Beville
Choreographer - Nan Friedman
Stage Manager - Scott Leo
Casting Director - Marilyn Mandel
Associate Producer - Matthew Lieberman



BODY POLITICS: Of vicars, padded bras and lost trousers
by Steven Leigh Morris

L-R: Shirley Knight, Robert Foxworth, Marian Mercer,
Nancy Lanahan & Gregory Cooke

I first saw Charles Hallahan perform in 1974, in a small San Francisco stage production of Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He played Randall McMurphy, a free-spirited fellow lobotomized for his rebellious actions in the mental institution to which he has been committed. Now, I'm not suggesting that Jack Nicholson didn't turn in a terrific performance in the later movie version, but when it comes to wise lunatics, Hallahan, for me, is definitive.

That was the same summer I ambled into a restaurant-bar, wondering what a small crowd was so taken with on the TV. There was Richard Nixon, flickering in black and white, drowning in the Watergate flood, voice cracking, resigning his presidency. A single message emerges from the respective downfalls of the two characters: you can't always do what you want — and get away with it.

So here we are, 20 years later. I wander into a hotel lobby in L.A. to find a knot of people transfixed by images on a TV: elite Marine Corps guards firing rifles into the sky, a solemn Bill Clinton, a flag-draped casket — Nixon's funeral. A few weeks later, I'm reviewing Alan Bennett's 1973 English sex farce, Habeas Corpus, at the Matrix Theater, and there's Charles Hallahan again, once more dressed in institutional white, a tad more corpulent than when I first saw him, but just as nimble on his feet — again bellowing and swaggering, the twinkle in the eye undiminished. Now, rather than the patient, he's playing the doctor, a lecherous physician from Hove named Arthur Wicksteed.

Though the play is little more than a souffle, it's still ironic that, within a month of Nixon's burial, Hallahan's character, speaking through a wind tunnel of two decades, tells us that we should always do what we want. Though it's bad to live with guilt for what we've done, he suggests, think how much worse it is to live with regret for what we haven't done. "Whatever right or wrong is, he whose lust lasts, lasts longest."

Bennett, of course, penned this before AIDS roared across the landscape, and in some ways he foreshadowed the celebratory attitude toward unbridled greed that became associated with the '80s. The mistake in watching this superbly executed revival of a play that dwells so incessantly on men losing their trousers and the size of women's breasts is to assume that it's as trivial as its obsessions. It is indeed anachronistic piffle, but it also reflects a state of mind and, like any signpost of where we've come from, gives occasion to ponder where we're going.

Habeas Corpus is set in a partly industrial, partly tourist town adjoining the English Channel, scenes of which are painted on horizontally sliding flats, designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio. It's significant that Bennett chooses suburbia for his setting, for as the play leaps across the Atlantic Ocean to American shores, the lust that Bennett celebrates (and the repression he bemoans) isn't just for and about urban freethinkers. Rather, it reaches straight for the hearts of people living in places like Covina and Anaheim — the same people who became addicted to Monty Python and Benny Hill.

Raymond and Vernacchio have also designed a kaleidoscope of colors on the floor that captures the tail end of the "All You Need Is Love" era. In the midst of this collage stands a "hoover" (vacuum cleaner), and with this image, the play opens.

Our narrator is a housekeeper named Mrs. Swabb (a spry Marian Mercer), who introduces us to the Wicksteeds. There's the aforementioned Arthur; his dowdy wife, Muriel (Jennifer Bassey); and their gormless, hypochondriac son, Dennis (Gregory Cooke), who lumbers about the stage with toilet paper wadded in his front pocket for his perennially running nose. "But I've got piles," he complains to the voluptuous Felicity Rumpers (Anna Gunn) when she suggests that they share a romantic picnic in the open air.

Finally, there's spinster Constance (Nancy Lenehan), whose passion to have sizable breasts has become a kind of religious calling. She is courted by a man of the cloth in whom she has absolutely no interest—a man to whom she has been engaged for 10 years and whose virtue is stained only by his penchant for gazing up other women's skirts. Constance's fiance is, not surprisingly, named Canon Throbbing (Cotter Smith).

Costumer Todd Roehrman dresses several of them in droopy cardigans and pullovers, stretched by wear, that not only define the regional attire, but provide a satire of dowdiness every bit as sparkling as the language.

The whole affair is directed with panache by Kristoffer Tabori. The souffle would fall were just one performer out of rhythm or spirit. But that doesn't happen — all the more impressive since this company rotates roles, and no two performances will boast the same cast. It suggests that Tabori has firmly entrenched the pacing and the style, after which he simply trusts his excellent company.

Arthur, being a doctor, tells us how keenly he's aware of death's inevitability and, consequently, the futility of his profession. Mrs. Swabb: "The smoothest cheek will wrinkle, the proudest breast will fall . . . death will claim us all." It is both the death and the futility by which he rationalizes his philandering, and he spends a great deal of effort romancing young Felicity.

Arthur and son wind up competing for her affections. Felicity leaves the doctor waiting alone on the Brighton pier in the pouring rain, for she is far more attracted to his bent-twig boy. Actually, it's not Dennis that wins her heart, but his doom, for he appears to have only three months to live because of an affliction called "Brett's Palsy." Of such stuff romanticism is built. That's the view, at least, in the era before feminism supposedly enlightened us all.

When Felicity realizes that Dennis may not have Brett's Palsy, and that she's facing the prospect of living with the lout for a good 50 years, she backs into the wall, boggle-eyed, emitting a primal scream.

Meanwhile, a traveling tit salesman (for lack of a better description) named Mr. Shanks (Andrew Bloch), carrying a pair of plastic strap-on breasts, mistakes the well-endowed and long-ignored Mrs. Wicksteed for his intended client, Constance. Diligently professional, he feels what he presumes to be his product as it's worn by Mrs. W.  Unaware that he's groping flesh, Shanks arouses a bliss in her that's reflected in Bassey's face and body with pristinely comic eloquence.

When Constance finally gets to wear the apparatus, suddenly the president of the British Medical Association, a model of moral rectitude and vengeance named Sir Percy Shorter (Hamilton Camp), starts lusting after her or, at least, after her artificially inflated chest.

Felicity's aristocratic' mother, Lady Rumpers (Audra Lindley), sees this motley assemblage as a metaphor for the British Empire's decline, but she, too, has moral indiscretions in her history. Everyone does. That's the point. So stop repressing them and live before you die. If only it were so simple.

There's a running motif in Habeas Corpus that speaks to people who, a generation ago, hadn't quite absorbed the shock that society was abandoning the moral illusions of the '50s. Partly delighted, partly befuddled characters say, 'This must be what they mean by the permissive society." The line contains all the confusion and hope of an era that tried to promise us that, if we just took whatever we wanted, somehow we would be set free.

BackStage West: CRITIC'S PICK

by Bob Stevens

The Matrix Theatre Company has followed up its critical and audience success The Tavern with a British farce about the seven-year itch and various ways lo scratch it. Alan Bennett wrote this madcap comedy full of the usual mistaken identities, disrobed young ladies, men without trousers, and a lovely set of "falsies." Kristofiei Tabori has directed the frantic and frenetic proceedings to perfection. The timing is precise and the laughs are constant.

The cast is an amazing assembly of talent. As with the The Tavern, every role is double-cast, and it's amazing to see what two different performers can do with the same material. I'addi Edwards and Marian Mercer both essay the role of Mrs. Swabb, maid, busybody, "Fate," and narrator. Nan Martin makes an imperious Lady Rumpers, majestically striding the stage in her pith helmet. Audra Lindley brings a more genteel graciousness to the character but doesn't lose her spine of steel. Kaillin Hopkins and Anna Gunn both make lovely young objects of lust and affection as Felicity, an innocent yet experienced lady of the world. Shirley Knight is an extra-special delight as the neglected wife whose body awakens to another man's touch. Charles Hallahan and Robert Foxworth both command the stage as the lusty Dr. Wicksteed. Nancy Lenehan delivers a comic gem as the flat-chested Connie, who finds new life in a cellulose enhancement. Hamilton Camp struts around marvelously as the short Sir Percy Shorter. Cotter Smith and Alastair Duncan make randy dandies as Canon Throbbing.

Design efforts are well-handled by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio's pop art set, Paulie Jenkins' masterful lighting, Todd Roehrman's right-on costumes, and Matthew Beville's great sound design. Habeas Corpus should have bodies filling the theatre and rolling in the aisles for a long time to come.


by Hoyt Hilsman

Alan Bennett's farce is revived in a sparkling production with Kristoffer Tabori directing a knockout cast that delivers not only the laughs, but also the nuances of the British playwright's humor.

The play is a modern Restoration comedy that tracks the domestic adventures of physician Arthur Wicksteed (Robert Fox-worth), his wile Muriel (Shirley Knight), his son Dennis (JD Cullum) and his spinster sister Constance (Nancy Lenehan).

In their own way, each of these characters searches for love, or rather lust.

Arthur has his eye on the comely Felicity Rumpers (Kaiilin Hopkins), who has her eye (for quite different reasons) on Dennis. Muriel is dreaming of former sweetheart Sir Percy Shorter (Hamilton Camp), the diminutive president of the British Medical Assn.

Constance is also being pursued by the earnest and bumbling Canon Throbbing (Alastair Duncan), as well as by an itinerant salesman of breast enhancement appliances, Mr. Shanks (Andrew Robinson).

Add the wisecracking housekeeper Mrs. Swabb (Paddi Edwards), the highborn eccentric Lady Rumpers (Nan Martin), a suicidal patient (Charles Berendt), and you have a festive mix.

Farce is the most challenging theatrical form, and the cast and director Tabori keep it clicking.

Knight is terrific as the lonesome British matron, pining over chance compliments offered decades ago. Cullum and Hopkins are a winning combination as one of several odd couplings in the piece, as are Lenehan and Duncan.

Edwards is marvelous in a crucial role weaving the fast-moving scenes together. Martin, Camp, Robinson and Berendt also turn in excellent performances.

As a physician weary of the world but still lusting for the flesh, Foxworth brings a dimension to the lead character that conveys much of the deeper spirit of the piece.

The play is double-cast, with these actors rotating roles with a another talented group of performers.

Director Tabori deserves special praise not only for his skillful and insightful handling of the production, but also for double directing duties.

Kudos also to set designers Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio for imaginative, artistic set, to composer Ross Levinson, sound designer Matthew Seville and costume designer Todd Roehman.

L.A. Times

"Habeas: A Good Mix of Talent"
by Philip Brandes, Special to the Times

Since each performance of Alan Bennett's "Habeas Corpus" at the Matrix Theatre features a different mix of actors drawn from the production's dual casts, there's no way to know in advance which of the alternates might appear in any given role.

Not to worry, though. Any loss in predictability is more than offset by the opportunity to see first-rate performers who couldn't commit to stage work in a small house without the schedule flexibility that allows them to pursue other projects during the run.

The implicit concession to the reality of live theater's back-seat status to film and television may rankle stage purists, but the benefits of Matrix producer Joe Stern's double-casting strategy were obvious in the impressive range of talent arrayed for the two performances reviewed last weekend.

Within the tight constraints of Bennett's energetic farce (which combines the sophisticated wit of "The Importance of Being Earnest" with the raunchy burlesque of "The Benny Hill Show"), the differences between casts are primarily in interpretive spin rather than quality of performance. The widest variations are in Bennett's bastions of upper-middle-class hypocrisy, the philandering Dr. Wicksteed and his long-Suffering wife, Muriel. As the not-so-good doctor who "couldn't heal a shoe," Charles Hallahan flounders hopelessly in his own romantic delusions, while Robert Foxworth is more the self-aware realist (though just as hilariously enslaved to his raging hormones).

Shirley Knight plays Muriel as a clueless, bewildered matron—the funniest moment in the production is her round-eyed astonishment (and delight) when she's mistakenly "adjusted" by a salesman (Andrew Robinson or Andrew Bloch) who thinks she's wearing his bust-enlargement product; in contrast, Jennifer Bassey's Muriel is sharper and feistier, but less endearingly befuddled. Contributing to the inevitable complications are their hypochondriac son (equally nerdy JD Cullum and Gregory Cooke) and the seductive gold digger (outrageous Kaitlin Hopkins or enigmatic Anna Gunn) who snares him; spinster Aunt Constance (Nancy Lenehan in both reviewed performances) and the lecherous priest (effete Alastair Duncan or aggressive Cotter Smith) who urges her to join him in "the forefront of Anglican sexuality"; rival doctor Sir Percy Shorter (wiry Hamilton Camp or aloof Charles Berendt); and the meddlesome commentator-maid (pushy, mischievous Paddi Edwards or twinkly, demented Marian Mercer).

Qualitative differences in performance are minimal, though Nan Martin is a more imperious presence than Audra Lindley as the Lady Bracknell-ish aristocratic snob, and Berendt brings more comic lunacy to his suicidal patient than does Brian Mallon.

Credit director Kristoffer Tabori for the continuity his precision staging brings to the various casts, and for frenetic pacing appropriate to Bennett's verbal acrobatics. He hasn't solved the problematic final 15 minutes, however, in which the play seems perpetually stuck on the verge of ending.

Successful production embellishments include colorful Hockneyesque painted backdrops (by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio) in place of the scripted bare stage, and a score by Ross .Levinson setting Bennett's occasional spoken poems to music.

Both "Habeas Corpus" and the preceding Matrix production of "The Tavern" have been smart choices—the kind of plot-driven comedies that can easily incorporate the performance variations inherent in the "plug-and-play" casting concept. Character-based dramas like "King Lear" or "Death of a Salesman," however, might pose a greater challenge. We'll just have to wait and see.

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