British dramatist and film director Mike Leigh has become as famous for his improvisational working process as for his many plays and movies. On the surface, his actor-driven method produces a quasi documentary realism, in films like Naked, Secrets & Lies, and Life Is Sweet. But he pulls his earnestly ad-libbing characters along in elaborate plots toward operatic conclusions. In Smelling a Rat, a stage play from 1988, he loosens the reins and allows both characters and plot to revel in their improbability. The heightened artifice of the play lets you in on the joke in a way the actors in his films deliberately avoid—it’s as if Leigh’s having a very good-natured laugh at his own expense. His charming strategy pays off, and it’s made all the more effective by a deftly daft New Group ensemble that knows better than to overplay it.
You’d have trouble digging up a more wonderfully silly plot outside Fawlty Towers. A couple of days after Christmas, Rex Weasel, a crusty English businessman, returns home early from his vacation, perhaps because of marital troubles. Hearing unfamiliar people in the apartment, he grabs a pistol and leaps into one of his six closets. Enter the garrulous Vic Maggot and his wife Charmaine. Vic works for Rex’s extermination company, and the two are on a murky mission from a co-worker. They poke around and make the kind of rude comments about Rex and his wife that you hope they will, and nearly have sex on the bed. Then they, too, are surprised by intruders and leap into different closets. Rex’s sullen son Rock trundles in with his awkward adolescent girlfriend Melanie-Jane, who wobbles on her heels and spouts banalities to avoid Rock’s insistent libido. “Does Madonna know Michael Jackson, d’ya think?” she wonders.
Director Scott Elliott handles the material with masterful understatement. This is no mean feat for such a ridiculous set-up, yet it’s absolutely necessary if the play isn’t to teeter over the edge into crassness. At one moment it looks like Rock might date-rape Melanie-Jane, a situation easily mishandled in the middle of a farce, but the director gives it exactly the right weight. Elliott, as well as actors Brían F. O’Byrne and Gillian Foss as Vic and Charmaine, deserve heaps of praise for overestimating the audience’s intelligence. The temptation to broaden the comedy and leech out the undercurrents of danger and pathos must be high—in this play, Leigh’s characters have the opportunity to come off as buffoons instead of real people reacting to life’s absurdity. The hyper-reality of Smelling a Rat is a delightful reminder that even artists who claim to be as dedicated to truth as Leigh are just better liars.
It’s harder to turn an already crass comedy into something more intelligent. Young German playwright David Gieselmann’s Mr. Kolpert has all the nuance of a jackboot in the face. A raucous overextended skit that shoplifts a premise each from Rope and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play either intends to satirize bourgeois values and modern amorality with its sadistic comedy of bad manners, or to shock its audience into laughing at its cruel characters. Against all hopes, it may be just an insult hurled at us with the cynical expectation that we‘ll actually enjoy the artless brutality it disguises as humor.
Like George and Martha’s game of Get the Guests, Ralf and Sarah have invited Sarah’s co-worker Edith and her husband Bastian over for dinner in order to terrorize them. We never know why, unless it’s because they’re as vapid and corrupt as their hosts. Ralf and Sarah may or may not have murdered Sarah and Edith’s supervisor, the hapless accountant Mr. Kolpert, and locked his dead body in a trunk, which is doing double duty as a dining-room table. That’s the bit lifted from Rope. For much of the encounter, Ralf and Sarah drive their guests mad by keeping them from discerning Kolpert’s fate. When they discover it, the will triumphs, and the dinner party turns savage. The couples begin socking each other in the gut, wrestling each other to the ground, projectile vomiting, and peeing on the corpse. Even the pizza delivery boy gets into the action.
Witness Relocation Co., a spunky bunch of thrill seekers, some of whom have not yet graduated from NYU, must have been attracted to Mr. Kolpert for its shock value, and perhaps its sophomoric jabs at chaos theory. (Will someone move the creative writing departments a little further from the physics buildings, please?) But the truly sickening aspects of the production seem coincidental, like the fact that the vomit looks like hand lotion. WRC doesn’t yet recognize that bad taste like Gieselmann’s is useless without sophistication. Maybe someone will have to build a Leopold and Loeb Student Center at NYU.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 28, 2002