Terribly silly and wonderfully philosophical, Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus makes for a bawdy night of brazen, British-style theater. And Actors Theatre of Houston is up to the absurdist task, putting together a production that rivals Benny Hill at his scatological best.
All about death and sex and the body, the play focuses on the long-suffering Wicksteed family, a proper English clan headed up by the disinterested and disillusioned patriarch Dr. Arthur Wicksteed (Nelson Heggen). At 53 and well into the throws of a middle-age crisis, the good doctor has seen at least "25,000 sets of private parts.The most conscientious whore could not have seen more." And because of his vast experience, the man practically pulses with corporal loathing. "I despise the body," he groans. "We're all pigs." His big-hipped, lonely and rather randy middle-aged wife, Muriel (Susan Oltmanns-Koozin), longs for human contact, but her husband won't have any of it, spouting such cynicism as, "Show me a human body, and I'll show you a cess pit." Muriel wiggles down her twin set sweater and pouts.
The couple's acned and oozing son, Dennis (Brandon Lamar Hayes), who wears skin-tight, polyester plaid trousers (the play is set in the '60s) does nothing but confirm Wicksteed's disappointment in life. Wicksteed can't even remember the pimple-faced boy's name. And poor Dennis obliges his father's disappointment by becoming a neurotic hypochondriac obsessed with illness and his own death.
And what would a proper British home be without a frumpy "old maid" sister who'd do anything for "a large bust" that she can "flaunt," including ordering one that arrives tout de suite, via parcel post. The spindly spinster, Connie Wicksteed (JeanAnn Hutsell), is pursued by a "slim salivating preacher with a brilliant future on both sides of the grave," but he's not what she wants. Connie wants vitality. She wants a big hairy burl of a man. Most of all, she wants sex. And she plans on using her mail-order boobs to get it.
This cartoon cast of goony misfits plays out its passions and fears in a script filled with limericks, rhymes and stunningly astute statements about passion, sex and the grief of growing old. "Touching is what loved ones are for, because loving takes the sting out of it," says the debauched doctor.
Of course, their repressed and suppressed world is turned upside down the day that Felicity Rumpers (Sara Simmonds) shows up in the doctor's waiting room. Preggers and manless, the blond, mini-skirted bombshell can't help but turn heads. Dr. Wicksteed can barely keep his hands off. He snaps on his rubber examining gloves exclaiming, "Doctors can touch anyone, because they don't have the feelings to go with it." Suddenly his interest in the body is aroused in a way he hasn't experienced in years. "It doesn't seem five minutes since I was 16," he says, with almost winsome sweetness, reminding us that even as lust lingers, "death will take us all" in the end.
Somehow Felicity stumbles upon son Dennis, whose claim to fame is the latest deadly disease he's suffering from. When he spills this information to the beautiful pregnant blond, she sees her chance: marry the acned, oily nerd and wait for him to die. That way she'll be legitimate and free all at once. Of course, the smitten doctor, who knows nothing of her plans, makes up his own scenario with the girl, which entails running off and starting over.
This story is complicated by the comings and goings over Connie Wicksteed's newly arrived bust, an appliance made from the finest materials, the same as those "used in the Apollo space mission." And all the while the doctor's lusty wife is having her own philanderings with a series of men, including an ex-sweetheart who bears the rather unfortunate appellation of Sir Percy Shorter (Rutherford Cravens). Shorter, who is very short, suffers from a Napoleon complex; he runs about barking threats at anyone who dares mention the obvious.
Add in a running commentary from Mrs. Swabb (Michelle Britton), a working-class maid who constantly cracks wise as she narrates the progress of her foolish charges, and the play becomes a fine farce filled with astute social commentary.
Directed by Kate Revnell-Smith, this production is wildly energetic, utterly irreverent, politically incorrect, homophobic and misogynistic. You'll love it. Just like Benny Hill, Habeas Corpus is filled with a kind of lowbrow, middle-aged British humor that is embarrassingly laugh-out-loud funny.
The performances are also strong. Especially memorable is Heggen's Dr. Wicksteed, who is wry, lonesome and full of biting philosophy about his sorry plight. Britton as Mrs. Swabb controls a good deal of the show's pace, keeping everything on track with her sagacious wit and excellent timing. Simmonds's Felicity looks and sounds as if she walked right off a '60s sound stage, complete with her board-straight waist-long blond hair, frosty lips and hip-hugging hot-pink miniskirt. Hutsell's flat-chested Connie makes for a terrific sad sack (though the horn-rimmed glasses and dowdy wig don't go far enough in hiding the actress's beauty). But without question, Cravens steals the show each and every time he steps onto the stage. Blustering, red-faced and looking mighty fine in a pair of red silk drawers and black garters, Cravens maintains his status here as one of Houston's finest actors.
Nothing about this show is hip, new or original. But it will make you laugh and maybe even make you think, particularly when it serves up philosophy such as this: "He who lusts last, lasts longest."
Habeas Corpus runs through December 18 at Actors Theatre of Houston, 2506 South Boulevard, (713)529-6606. $10-$14.
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