Some people can get away with anything. Eric Swan, an unemployed Brit at the center of Michael Cooney’s farcical comedy “Cash on Delivery,” has managed to defraud the government for two years, thanks to a slew of fictitious tenants and the never-ending stream of social security checks that arrive in the mail.
If you think that’s audacious, and it is, then also consider a community theater getting away with staging a play that features not a single redeeming character, yet somehow ends up being a pretty good hoot.
“Cash,” directed by Karen Rolston for Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre, is in most ways a cookie-cutter British farce: slamming doors, frantic antics, broad gags, cross-dressing — everything but the kitchen sink, though there is a cameo by an overactive washing machine.
Behind such silly stupidity, though, lies a potent satire of bureaucracy. At the play’s start, Eric (played by Matthew Crosby) wants to stop his grand fraud — conscience seems to have gotten the better of him — but slippery slopes aren’t easy to climb back up. A wormy inspector, Jenkins (Nick Jones), stops by for signatures on a form, and before long Eric — pretending to be a cane-leaning tenant with a bout of gout — finds his house overrun by social workers, his deception tangling up into a hilarious mess, the checks ever on their way.
“I’m in a nightmare,” Eric pleads, shoving his face into a sofa cushion. “They keep sending me more and more money!”
“Cash” starts slowly, building like a teakettle to a rollicking boil, leaving little room to realize there’s not a sympathetic character in the lot. Eric, of course, is a con artist; his none-the-wiser wife, Linda (Christina Rae Stewart), is a bit of an ogress; even a marriage counselor (Mike Hummel) — “relationship arbitrator,” he prefers — making a house call comes across as a simpering buffoon.
Like most British farces, the comedy is broad, and the jokes, like doors to the face and double-entendres galore, can be predictable. But director Rolston, less interested in playing traffic cop at the farce’s demolition derby of hijinks, directs with a keen ear for the play’s verbal gags, as when the phrase “heartless tart” is volleyed as an insult, only to be excused as a dessert item.
Crosby’s Eric may not be altogether likable, but the actor himself definitely is: wild splays of blond locks, eyes that bug out, a toothy grin flashing in nervous response as the plot posits some new bureaucratic obstacle.
But it’s Kevin Tretter, as a tenant unwittingly wrapped up in the fraud, who earns the most laughs — forced to play a deaf piano tuner, utterly uncomfortable with the prospect of lying. At one anxious point, he locks Jenkins in the dining room. Why?
He explains: “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”
THEATER REVIEW | "Cash on Delivery"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, closing Feb. 9
Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Ave., Gilbert
Information: (480) 497-1181 or www.haletheatrearizona.com