The words “Oh what a tangled web we weave” have rarely been truer than they are about out-of-work landlord Eric Swan, whose multiple attempts to deceive the British Department Of Social Security are about to be found out in Michael Cooney’s side-splitting farce Cash On Delivery, now getting a sensationally performed big-stage revival at the El Portal Theatre, directed by (and co-starring) none other than Cooney’s celebrated playwright dad Ray.
Cooney Jr.’s oh-so tangled romp starts out simply enough, with Eric (Jim Mahoney) ringing up DSS to cancel all social security payments being sent to his address, Eric’s first attempt to put an end to the charade that has, for the past two years, had him receiving check after check after check for one fictitious tenant after another (and their made-up family members as well).
Eric’s deception started out innocently enough, relatively speaking, just after he was given the pink slip at the Electricity Company—a job his wife Linda (Henrietta Meire) still believes he holds—when he decided to cash the social security check sent his recently departed tenant Rupert Thompson and keep the money for himself.
From there, Eric’s ruse spiraled to include multiple other departed or invented lodgers and their spouses, offspring, and distant relations, a hoax that has allowed the larcenous landlord to keep on paying the bills as before, and perhaps even better.
There’s only one problem.
As soon as Eric informs DSS that the lodger whose benefits he wishes to cancel has suddenly died (of Lassa fever no less), he learns to his dismay that this tenant, “lumberjack” Norman McDonald, is now eligible for funeral payment, that his “widow” is due widow’s payment, and that his “children” will be sent child payment, and if that weren’t already trouble enough, the real Norman (Sam Meader) is still alive and kicking … and paying the rent … and single … and a shoe salesman.
If this were real life, Eric’s predicament would be more than enough for any one man to handle, but this is a Michael Cooney play, and things have only just begun.
A knock on Eric’s door brings DSS Inspector Mr. Jenkins (Brian Wallace) by for a signature from a certain Rupert Thompson, whose room Norman took over when Thompson emigrated to Canada two years ago, which leaves Eric only one choice, to impersonate the gout-plagued Rupert, limp, walking stick, and all.
Trouble is, Mr. Jenkins also needs the landl0rd’s signature, which requires Norman to play Eric while Eric plays Rupert.
Are you following so far?
Grief counselor Sally Chessington (Marie-France Arcilla) arrives to help Norman’s bereaved family in their time of sorrow; psychotherapist Dr. Chapman (Michael Sweeney Hammond) shows up for an appointment set up by Linda, who’s concerned that hubby Eric may be a cross-dresser; undertaker Mr. Forbright (Hap Lawrence) arrives to take care of the fake Norman’s body; DSS inspector Ms. Cowper (Debra Cardona) pays her own investigatory visit; and the real-life Norman’s real-life fiancée Brenda (Katie Amess) drops by as well.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about that cross-dressing bit, it turns out that Eric’s Uncle George (Ray Cooney), has got his own scam going on selling wigs, bras, support corsets, surgical stockings, and maternity dresses pilfered from his job at the local hospital and stashed away at his nephew’s flat, though unfortunately not well enough to prevent Linda from discovering them.
If all this seems more than a tad convoluted, fear not. As with any Cooney farce, whether by father Ray (whose oeuvre includes Run For Your Wife, the longest-running comedy in West End history) or by son Michael ( who cowrote Tom, Dick, And Harry with his dad), it doesn’t matter all that much whether you follow each one of Cash On Delivery’s many twists and turns towards its inevitable happy ending. The fun is in the roller-coaster ride you take to get there.
Like any Cooney (père or fils) comedy, Cash On Delivery delivers the farcical goods: characters in disguise being mistaken for other characters in-or-out of disguise, double entendres galore, oodles of physical comedy shtick, and doors, lots and lots of doors to slam and hide behind, and in the case of C.O.D., a window seat that opens and closes as well.
Not only is Michael Cooney a master “plotter” like his father before him (the Cooneys’ plays are constructed with a mathematical precision that would tax even the cleverest whodunit writer), he’s a whiz at one-liners (Eric: I’ve put your Mum and Dad into a raffle. Norman: Who’d want to win my Mum and Dad?) and suggestive language (much is made of a certain “Little Dickie”).
In addition, both playwright Cooney and director Cooney give their actors plenty of opportunities to strut their physical comedy stuff.
Uncle George alone gets strapped to a gurney and thrown inside a window seat, and has a door slammed into his head more times than I could count. Eric must go in and out of Rupert’s gout, thrust his head repeatedly into another character’s ample bosom, and grab side-by-side rumps (thanks to the “advanced” form of Tourette’s he’s made up for “Robert”). Norman needs to fake being a deaf piano tuner and later don female drag, and since poor Norman does neither all that convincingly, both impersonations are hilarious.
Credit Lisa Fields Casting and casting associate Chad Murnane for coming up with as stellar an ensemble as any Cash On Delivery could possibly hope for, and though six of the ten aren’t actual U.K. natives, I defy you to guess whose accents are authentic and whose are “fakes” without checking your program.
Lanky looker Mahoney anchors the production in a charming comedic star turn reminiscent of 1960s screen star Jim Hutton (Timothy’s dad), while sexy blond Meader displays abundant comedy chops as Eric’s unwilling but ultimately amenable partner in crime.
The equally looks-blessed Meire, Arcilla, and Amess prove themselves all three expert comediennes. Meire’s increasingly bewildered Linda, Arcilla’s warm, well-meaning Sally, and Amess’s delightful but dim Brenda match their male costars every step of the way.
Wallace’s doggedly determined Mr. Jenkins and Cardona’s mannish, manhandled Ms. Cowper add up to a terrific pair of trouble-makers.
Lawrence’s drolly Dickensian mortician and Hammond’s well-meaning but clueless marriage counselor (who gives new meaning to “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat”) are two more performance winners.
Finally, box-office draw Cooney not only proves himself as sprightly at 83 as most men are at 38, he’s a hilarious hoot as C.O.D.’s “old coot.”
Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich fills the El Portal stage with a spiffy East London living room set any regional theater would be proud to feature and costumes that are equally splendid. James Smith III’s lighting design, Julie Ferrin’s sound design, and Marissa Bergman’s props are topnotch as well.
Vernon Willet is production stage manager and Jay Irwin and Pegge Forrest are production managers.
Cash On Delivery guarantees Laughs On Arrival and all the way through, and with farce master Ray Cooney not only in charge of the madcap merriment but onstage as a bonus, there’s no more hilarious theatrical treat in town this holiday season.
The El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
December 6, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger