Even if you didn’t already know that Too Many Cooks was a farce, the dead giveaway comes when you sit down in Circle Theatre’s intimate space and look at the stage, with all of the doors and entryways in Clare Floyd DeVries’ set.
There are at least five, with different kinds of hinges and locks for an assortment of swinging and knob-fumbling possibilities. The set (along with the title) also gives away that this is a restaurant, so possibilities for farce abound. You’re already imagining well-timed entrances and exits as characters try not to be seen by each other, and hopefully a pie in the face or two. And you won’t be far off.
All of those elements, and more, are there (sub salmon mousse for pie), as is Circle’s cast and director Robin Armstrong, who handles physical comedy as well as any director in town. Not that this type of farce is known for subtlety, but with characters who have last names like Bubbalowe, Feghetti and — the real forehead-smacker — Effing, you know that this one’s gonna come with a major case of too-obvious-ness.
Again, you’re not wrong.
Written by Douglas E. Hughes and Marcia Kash, this Canadian farce aims for something in the vein of the better 20th-century farces that followed Philip King’s See How They Run (a hit at Circle in 2012), and all the elements are there. But too much of it comes off as forced, and the setups are thinner than a sauce that’s vinaigrette-thin.
It’s 1932, and Irving Bubbalowe (Randy Pearlman) and his daughter Honey (Jessi Little) are having a special dinner at his French restaurant overlooking Niagara Falls in Ontario, and awaiting the arrival of an acclaimed French chef/opera singer. Like Godot, he never shows, but luckily a down-on-his luck chef, Frank Plunkett (Eric Dobbins), is looking for work.
To add to the sense of farce, Mickey McCall (Christopher Curtis) is smuggling something in those boxes labeled “pea soup,” and American gangsters Alfonse “Noodles” Feghetti (David H.M. Lambert) and sidekick Shirley (Shane Strawbridge) aren’t happy about it. There’s also a leggy detective, Veronica Snook (Morgan McClure), and a Dudley Do-Right-esque Mountie, Constable Effing (Brad Stephens).
The performance seen for this review was the third preview, right before opening night, so a few near-misses with the physical timing can be forgiven, especially knowing that many of these actors, especially Strawbridge and Lambert, are adept at such antics. They are, indeed, the standouts here, with strong competition from Pearlman, Stephens and Dobbins, who has to speak in several accents, and does them well in an appropriately over-the-top way. The women don’t fare as well — McClure looks the part, but appears out of her element amid these shenanigans.
Even for this kind of comedy, too many gags are groaners, like the constant changing of Honey’s ethnicity to suit the situation. The Cuban one, and the characters’ various responses to it, is borderline offensive — but this is set in 1932, before political correctness changed how we think about such things.
It’s all funny enough, with a few moments that garner raucous laughs and verbal responses from the audience. But “funny enough” won’t slice it when nonstop laughter and the element of surprise are necessary for a well-constructed farce.
Too many cooks can spoil the comedy broth.