Beyond banana peels and Charlie Chaplin, there’s nothing at all universal about comedy. So much relies on shared cultural references and gestures; one man’s Sabado Gigante is another gal’s lost weekend. In the case of The Play What I Wrote, a colossal West End hit in London now imported to Broadway for a New York audience in dire need of distraction, it’s not necessary to be familiar with the funny-guy-and-straight-man act of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, but it probably helps: Their TV appearances were as familiar to 1970s British audiences as Tom and Dick Smothers’ were Stateside. And this funny-guy-and-straight-man act, with Sean Foley as the former, Hamish McColl as the latter, and Toby Jones as an elfin utility player donning a procession of askew wigs, is a direct fantasia on a theme of the zany, vaudevillian, knockabout routines of their elders.
The conceit is that McColl (small guy, big eyes, eager smile) is tired of doing the ha-ha partner act and wants to prove he’s a serious artiste by mounting a production of his French Revolution drama A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple; all he needs is the right guest star – ideally Ian McKellen. Foley (larger adrenalized guy, vague resemblance to Drew Carey), meanwhile, just wants to continue their successful gig, especially because the famous American producer ”Mike Tickles” is interested in importing them.(Jones gamely plays Tickles, a harmonica virtuoso hung up on his mother, a drag version of Daryl Hannah, and every other strenuously broad bit part.)
But is it funny? Oh, you know, that fine line between stupid and clever identified by a fellow countryman from Spinal Tap applies. There are moments in this short, extravagantly prop-filled show (directed by no less a baggy-pants fan than Kenneth Branagh, and produced by, among others, no less a half-a-comedy-team legend than the real Mike Nichols) when the interaction is so deliriously antic that funniness has nothing to do with it: The helium effect of so much silliness causes giggles to rise involuntarily, especially when Foley – whom his partner petulantly accuses of stealing all the laughs – produces a portfolio of silly walks straight from the ministry of John Cleese. Let’s say The Play is fun-ish, and it’s pleasant to await the arrival of the play’s game Mystery Guest Star, who in the past has been Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, or Kevin Kline, and who, on the night I attended, was an agreeably camp Roger Moore.
And let’s say that if one doesn’t keel over hysterical from the shared comedy culture of Foley and McColl, then one at least barks appreciatively a few times for the laughs what they wrung.