A good farce is all about exits and entrances. If the action is set indoors, it’s usually a question of doors opening and slamming as characters avoid ticklish situations with but a half-second to spare. In a grand farce such as the English “Noises Off” of the 1980s, the slamming of doors is accompanied by death-defying slapstick that includes a fall or two down the stairs. The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse opened its summer Monday Night Specials season with a good old-fashioned Edwardian farce last Monday.
In Oak Bluffs/New York playwright Gwyn McAllister’s delicious romp, “The Green Rose,” the story unfolds outside on the patio of an upper-class couple, the Cumberlands — mother Katherine played by Shelagh Hackett, daddy Harold played by David P.B. Stephens, and daughter Fiona played by Anna Yukevich. The patio setting still provides the doors in and out of the manor, but the chief slapstick arrives on the warm summer breeze as champagne is popped and glasses held high each time a couple gets engaged, then disengaged, then chummed up with a complete new roster in the fiancé market. The playwright has reached new heights of romantic entanglements, rivaling the twists and trysts of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The patio setting also provides lovers — or a pair pretending to be lovers — with the chance to sneak off into the garden to make temporary vows of undying love. And why temporary? Well, the exhilarating twist to Ms. McAllister’s perfect impersonation of the old-school drawing room farce is that the star couple is gay. Unabashedly gay. In “The Green Rose,” set at the turn of the 20th century, a gay partnership is still “the love that dare not speak its name” (and the one that got our satirical genius Oscar Wilde imprisoned), but the three friends at the heart of the drama, young Fiona and the lovers Tom (Matthew Greenberg) and Edward (Mark Jenkins), madly try to make it work.
Fiona’s parents have forbidden her the love of her life, the classy but undermonied Rory, who remains forever offstage and out of Fiona’s reach. It’s all about cash and class, of course; Rory is the “second son of a second son,” as his cousin Tom laments, so Fiona, in an act of charity, gets herself engaged to gay Tom, her best buddy from childhood. Their sham proposal is a hilarious 30-second ordeal, about as romantic as wishing the other “gesundheit” for a sneeze.
Our talented Ms. Yukevitch — we’ve seen her on the Playhouse stage since she was yea high to a klieg light— is now grownup, gorgeous, and outrageously funny. Her character Fiona is an arch-manipulator. It’s her plan that marriage to Tom will get them a place of their own, where he and Edward — now posing as a humble gardener (and hating the manual labor; this undercover Lord Rittenhouse is a master whiner) — whilst she, Fiona, can lead an independent life as a pre-proto-feminist. Without Rory, that’s her fallback position.
Into the arc of the already whimsical plot comes the pious missionary Clarice (Molly Purves), who turns out to be the sister of the aristocratic gardener Edward. But wait! There’s one more comic turn: A real gardener enters the scene (well, the Cumberlands desperately need one, as the cunning Fiona knows), and it’s Antonio, as played by Paul Munafo, channeling a swell Italian accent. (“All I had to do was imitate my father,” he confided backstage to Ms. McAllister).
Turns out Antonio and the strict matriarch Katherine once had a wild fling in her surprisingly wild youth. Antonio awakens a sherry glass full of sensuality in her, enough for Katherine to stop intimidating her meek husband, and to fire up a new passion in those cold, cold marital embers.
One last shout-out: The ever-engaging writer, actress, and comedian Jenny Allen read the stage directions. This is a woman who, as they say in showbiz, could read the phonebook and get plenty of laughs. And by the way, Playhouse artistic and executive director MJ Bruder Munafo directed “The Green Rose,” smoothly waltzing the actors from music stand to music stand with their scripts in a way that made you see the patio and the garden and, especially, smell the roses.
After hearty applause, and as people left the theater burbling happily, a consensus arose that the playwright’s early draft approached perfection. All it needed was to pop the characters into crinolines and ascots, pipe in more of the Chopin played during intermission, and get this baby on its feet.
Next on the Monday Night Specials lineup, on June 19, is “Gene Play,” by Jonah Lipsky and Casey Ann Hayward with Paul Levine. Based on real-life events in Cambridge in 1976 and 2017, this is a new drama about the ongoing controversy over the ethics and politics of gene editing. The writing of the play was sponsored in part by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council. All Monday Night Specials begin at 7:30 pm.