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Everything old is new again, and for situational comedy that goes double. When Kaufman and Hart introduced audiences to their xylophone-playing, ballet-dancing, tax-evading, dart-throwing, basement-firework-making Sycamore clan in You Can’t Take It With You some 70 years ago, their farcical model was Plautus—by way of Shakespeare.
Today, when Brit playwright Charlotte Jones mines comic eccentricity to animate the Butting family of Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, the influences range from Kaufman and Hart to Michael Frayn, with just a touch of Joe Orton thrown in. The domesticity is still warm, though the character-based laughs are a tad racier: It says something when a dominatrix is the most unremarkable creature on stage.
That would be Josie, a down-to-earth, family-oriented sex worker who sends her learning-challenged but imaginative daughter, Brenda-Marie, out to play in a backyard tent whenever a client requests a bit of discipline with his tea. When she’s not cracking a whip, Josie’s a sweetly devoted mom, and her home is inviting, warm, and absolutely immaculate, which doesn’t stop her obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, Martha, from polishing surfaces constantly.
“Look at this mess,” says Martha, gazing around the pristine living room. And once she has knocked five times, turned the doorknob five times, taken five steps, and distributed five towels, she’s ready to begin eliminating all manner of imaginary dust.
Today, as it happens, there will be more dust kicked up than usual, because one of Josie’s clients, an amiable, cross-dressing dry cleaner named Lionel, is throwing her a 40th birthday party. He’s mixed up a big pitcher of Catastrophes (a blue-green libation that looks about as lethal as its name), and to entertain he’s hired an Asian Elvis impersonator who’s brought his own smoke-machine, as well as a few changes of costume (deft work by Kate Turner-Walker, who also supplies the leather ’n’ lace discipline wear) so he can burst upon the scene as a svelte, studly hip-swiveler and morph into a flabby, rhinestone-encrusted King. This Elvis has come prepared, in short, for most eventualities and is flexible enough to continue smiling gamely even when a command performance of “The Wonder of You” requires him to croon while handcuffed to the coffee table.
Also on hand by the time he’s cuffed is Brenda-Marie’s twin sister Shelley-Louise, who more or less upends the festivities by returning from the dead (or at any rate, from self-imposed exile) as a birthday surprise for her mother. Since mom long ago convinced Brenda-Marie that her twin had died, this creates a domestic disconnect, and a few tears later, with Elvis acting as family counselor…oh, you get the drift.
Now, apart from the fur-lined handcuffs and the cracking of the occasional whip, most of this would not have been terribly out of place in the sort of family comedy that thrived on Broadway in the ’30s. So what, you may ask, is Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis doing at Woolly Mammoth, D.C.’s house of the avant-garde? Truth be told, it’s not a perfect fit. The play’s sweetly insubstantial and hasn’t got the edgy eccentricity audiences have come to expect from this adventurous troupe. But if Jones’ just-be-yourself message is conventional, the crackpot characters are right up Woolly’s alley, and John Vreeke’s antic staging brings out the weirdness in the first-rate cast that embodies them.
Start with Sarah Marshall’s compulsive Irish housekeeper whose obsession with the number five is so persuasive that you half expect her to take that number of curtain calls at evening’s end. Counting softly to herself, she roams the stage scouring tables with her gaze, unnerved by dust, appalled at fingerprints, frantic about dirt-based infelicities of every stripe. Marshall’s eyes are among the most expressive instruments on a Washington stage, and when she sets them to vibrating after an unexpected compliment, she’s a flat-out riot. Leave this woman on an empty stage with a pitcher of Catastrophes, and you hardly need a playwright.
Kimberly Gilbert, meanwhile, is making Brenda-Marie the brightest dim bulb around. With restless fingers ever in motion and a fiercely engaged way of looking at the world (especially when racing around the room as a figure-skater-in-training), she seems less learning disabled than a gifted literalist. Told that someone has “skullduggery written across his face,” she makes puzzlement seem the only reasonable reaction. It’s easy to see why Tony Nam’s athletically gyrating, deep-voiced, comically Chinese Elvis might describe her as possessing an “ageless wisdom” before joining her in her tent to escape the escalating madness.
David Bryan Jackson, downright fetching in his fishnet stockings and frilly black-velvet French maid outfit, is likewise pretty out there. And if Beth Hylton’s whip-cracking dominatrix and Tiffany Fillmore’s wounded prodigal daughter seem more conventional, well, the playwright imagined them that way so there’d be some ballast when the going gets sentimental.
The Woollies have given the show’s American premiere a solid, two-story Tudor home that grounds the proceedings persuasively in the real world. Dan Conway’s chintz-wallpapered setting could do double duty for a Noises Off revival without so much as a shifted sofa. And sturdy as it looks, its walls turn effortlessly transparent at evening’s end, when Colin K. Bills looses a few nifty lighting effects to create a starry, Christmas-evoking snowstorm—which seems a fitting conclusion for a cheery little trifle that stands a decent chance of running right through the holidays.CP