The country is England, the time is now, and the PM’s country house retreat Chequers is in crisis mode. The coalition government finds itself representing a divided electorate, the British Pound Sterling is waning in value, and an ongoing European Council conference seems headed for disaster. With all these problems and more on his table, what’s a Prime Minister to do?

In Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s hilariously farcical Yes, Prime Minister (now getting its US Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse), the answer comes in the form of a potential ten-trillion dollar bailout from a former Soviet republic the authors have dubbed Kumranistan. All the PM has to do is provide the Kumranistani foreign secretary with a trio of call girls for a totally illegal (and immoral and unethical) sex orgy.

org_img_1370543893_L  British TV fans will recall Yes, Prime Minister from its near decade-long run as a Thatcher/Reagan-era half-hour sitcom, updated now as a full-length stage play to fit our 21st Century world.

The TV show’s three main characters remain the same, the quarter century since the late ’80s seeming not to have aged them a day. They are Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Michael McKean), Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Jefferson Mays), and Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Dakin Matthews). Added to the mix for 2013 is the PM’s Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton (Tara Summers), representing what I’m told is a New Millennium addition to the governing powers of Great Britain, the politically appointed SPAD.

org_img_1370984700_L Unfolding over the course of a single, exceedingly hectic weekend at Chequers, Yes, Prime Minister offers its titular character and his entourage an ideal solution to their financial woes—an oil pipeline that will zigzag its way from Kumranistan to England via virtually every country in the European Union, entirely bypassing Russia (as a projected map of Europe makes hilariously clear).

Then comes the abovementioned moral/ethical dilemma, modified from the original London production’s request for one underage prostitute to three of-age hookers at the Geffen, and audiences are in for one rollicking roller-coaster ride, thanks to director Lynn and his quartet of leads, three of whom are every bit as believably English as their London-born costar. (I’ll leave it to you to guess whose accent is authentic and whose just sound like the real thing.)

org_img_1370543199_L Theatergoers unfamiliar with Yes, Prime Minister in TV sitcom form can rest assured. Within the first few minutes, it becomes obvious who each main character is, thanks to a combination of incisive writing by Jay and Lynn and sharp acting from McKean, Mays, Matthews, and Summers. As for the political and social realities facing the PM—the Pound Sterling vs. the Euro, the problems inherent in a coalition government, illegal immigration in the UK, an increasingly commercialized BBC, and the specter of global warming—only the most out-of-touch audience members will find themselves unable to figure out what’s what.

At two hours and twenty minutes (including intermission), Yes, Prime Minister runs about a quarter-hour too long, mostly in Act One, though I doubt cuts will be made at this point in its stage life. I’d guess too that some drama critics will carp that sitcom humor has no place at the Geffen, and smart as Yes, Prime Minister is, plenty of its dialog is straight out of a half-hour format.

org_img_1370543732_L Still, this reviewer can hardly complain with laughs coming fast and furious and performances just as splendid as they can be, particularly from the four leads. McKean’s harried Prime Minister is so incapable of making a decision by himself, he not only needs all his advisors’ help, in one outrageously funny sequence, he even gets the entire foursome down on their knees in hopes of divine intervention. Matthews’ deliciously pompous Sir Humphrey can talk up a storm and say absolutely nothing, as when a pair of seemingly endless run-on sentences signifying nada and uttered without a single pause for breath earn the L.A. theater treasure two separate rounds of applause. Multiple-role master Mays is every bit as marvelous playing just one here, the perennially beleaguered Woolley. Summers completes the foursome to perfection as the Special Advisor whose advice proves no more efficacious than any of her male counterparts.

org_img_1370544049_L Supporting performances are gems each and every one, from Brian George’s Kumranistani ambassador to Time Winters’ director general of the BBC to Stephen Caffrey’s BBC presenter, whose interview with the PM allows writers Jay and Lynn to poke fun at contemporary politicians’ artistry at avoiding answering any question under the sun. (A phone call in which Mays’s private secretary responds to a BBC employee’s questions with pre-scripted answers proves equally side-splitting.)

Understudies Ron Bottitta, Sasha Higgins, and Matthew Floyd Miller cover all seven roles in addition to appearing briefly as the TV crew sent to Chequers for the Prime Minister’s interview with the BBC.

Scenic designer Simon Higlett’s gorgeous, minutely detailed Chequers set is the West End original as is Andrea J Cox and John Leonard’s splendid sound design (with special kudos for some ear-shattering thunder effects), L.A. theater regular Jonathan Burke serving as associate sound designer. New for L.A. are the inestimable contributions of costume designer Kate Bergh and lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi.

Young Ji is production stage manager and Elizabeth A. Brohm is assistant stage manager. Casting of the Los Angeles-based ensemble is by Phyllis Schuringa.

Whatever concerns I might have had that unfamiliarity with Yes, Prime Minister in sitcom form or with European politics in all their intricacy vanished once the Geffen Playhouse’s crackerjack team of performers went into action. Ultimately, all that’s needed to enjoy Yes, Prime Minister in two-act form is a willingness to laugh, and audiences who find themselves so willing will be doing plenty of that.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. T

–Steven Stanley
June 13, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.