British farce, I have been told, is an acquired taste. But in the hands of a not ready-for-prime-time cast at Riverwalk Theatre, “Are You Being Served?” is a three day-old leftover from a broken refrigerator. It’s a sad commentary on a production when the best thing a critic can say is that Kris Vitols’ suit is wonderfully tailored.
The play, based on the British sitcom of the same name, follows a group of employees from Grace Brothers department store that is granted a vacation in sunny coastal Spain. Tim Beam wobbles and stalks through the store as old Mr. Grace. Sight gags, which might have been funny in the ‘80s when the show was a staple of PBS programming, are particularly heinous in light of the little-presidential-candidate-who-thought-he-could-get-away-with-it’s episodic gropings and squeezings.
Tim Lewis, in the role of store janitor Mr. Mash, gets uncomfortable laughs as he vacuums under the dress of a store mannequin, pulling out a pair of dusty panties. A few minutes later, Jane Zussman, in a shrill and vampy take on store employee Mrs. Slocombe, sticks an umbrella between the legs of a male customer (Rick Wendorf) to measure his inseam.
There are many references to the bounteous bosoms of store employee Miss Brahms (Jessa Bye), and a female customer (Laura Michels) is sexually aroused as not-so-ambivalently gay Mr. Humpries (Bob Murrell) fishes around in her panties for a piece of dropped chalk. Mr. Humphries has all the dated and stereotypical gay-man attributes that were common on television at the time, but they are no longer funny.
Mark Zussman, in the role of resort manager Don Bernardo, doesn’t show up until the second act. He doesn’t fare much better than his spouse in this production, channeling something like a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” version of Count Dracula.
There are 16 characters in this play, and I have been merciful to those not yet mentioned. There are a lot of scenes with several people standing in a row, suggesting director Justin E. Brewer wasn’t quite sure what to do with this many bodies.
There were a few bright spots. Dan Pappas takes a fine comic turn as Mr. Grainger, a tailor who has “the runs” and moves convincingly on and off the stage with a hurried wobble, and it is good to see Julie Hartley returning to the stage, even if it is in a cameo as a nurse.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of this production, however, is the two-story, 10-foot-tall and 4-foot-wide camouflage olive outhouse that is center stage in Act Two. Bathroom jokes accompany it, and characters are urged to sing to cover any bathroom sounds. They pick the strangest array of songs to mask their bodily functions. What fun.
One measure of a comedy is the quality and quantity of laughs it evokes. At Sunday’s matinee, there were a few titters, a handful of ha-has and, for this critic, a few yawns and two fights to stay awake.
“Are You Being Served?”
7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28 and Saturday, Oct. 29; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30
$15/$12 seniors, students and military
Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com