CENTERVILLE — For a textbook farce, begin with a cast of characters that includes a ditsy maid, a nosy spinster, an American actress, a portly bishop, a Russian spy disguised as a cleric and a sedate bishop aghast at all the goings-on. Add in improbable situations, misunderstandings, accidental intoxication and witty dialogue — and you have the no-holds-barred hilarity of “See How They Run.”
“This is British farce at its best,” says Michael Nielsen, director of CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s “See How They Run.” “It’s one of those shows that is not giving a lecture, it’s not changing your life, it’s giving you an evening of fun and laughter. It’s timeless.”
With a title taken from a line of the “Three Blind Mice” nursery rhyme, “See How They Run” began as a one-act play in 1942 under the title “Moon Madness.” Playwright Philip King, who at the age of 16 became immersed in the world of theater as an actor with a northern England touring company, completed the final act and retitled the play the following year.
When the play opened on London's West End in 1945, during World War II, audience members heard three flying bombs exploding nearby, although they stayed in their seats as the production continued. At the cast party after the play was over, the lead actor complained that all three intruding explosions went off just as he was speaking his funniest lines.
The play — which has been called “brilliantly funny” and “one of the funniest pieces of theater of the 20th century” — provided the perfect escapist entertainment as well as a form of encouragement during Britain’s darkest hour, running for 600 performances. The script is now in that legion of community theater comedy chestnuts.
King became well known throughout his career not only for his playwriting but also for appearing on stage in his own plays. While best known for “See How They Run,” he wrote a dozen plays including “Big Bad Mouse,” “Dark Lucy” and “Go Bang Your Tambourine” and co-wrote many more.
“See How They Run,” the director explains, “makes fun of the British. It makes fun of war. It makes fun of Americans. It kind of makes fun of everyone.
“It’s a quick-pace, fun show that is perfect for an intimate theater like our black box space, the Connie Leishman Performance Hall.”
Beyond the quintessential elements of a classic British farce, Nielsen has enjoyed participating in “See How They Run” for the character-based humor.
“As a director, I’m working on ‘the why’ as much as ‘the what.’ I’m not just telling the actors, ‘This is funny joke; say this.’ But I’m asking the actors to question why their characters are saying their lines, and we’re discovering that what makes the show funny is that the comedy is coming from the characters," he says.
“Cast members are finding all the humor based on their characters, and they are making brilliant choices.”
To summarize, Nielsen says, “There are no deep morals. It’s just relax and laugh. It’s a fun character study. These characters are just bizarre but we all know them.”
If you go
What: “See How They Run”
Where: CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s Connie Leishman Performance Hall
When: Aug. 6–Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.
How much: $12
Tickets: 801-298-1302 or centerpointtheatre.org