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Run for Your Wife

Farce: Film vs. Stage

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Basic Info:

Run for Your Wife is the fast paced, ridiculous British comedy written by Ray Cooney. It was remarkably popular in London throughout the 1980s, and still a popular choice among community theaters. Cooney recently directed a film adaptation which failed at the box office and annoyed nearly every movie critic.

Plot Summary:

John Smith may seem like an ordinary taxi driver, but he has been keeping a big secret. He has a loving wife named Mary in a flat in Wimbledon, and he has ANOTHER loving wife named Barbara who lives in a different flat only four minutes away. When he heroically attempts to save an old woman from two muggers, he gets bashed by her handbag and receives attention, not just from the hospital, but from the police. When two different detective begin asking too many questions, John must rush back and forth between his two wives, trying to untangle the marital mess he has made. To make matters worse, John's unemployed, moronic friend Stanley Gardner tries to help in the deception, but that simply leads to more hi-jinks when the police detective believes that John and Stanley are gay.

Two common complaints about the play (at least from the perspective of modern audiences) is that it celebrates infidelity and homosexual caricatures. There's an innocence about John's adultery that suggests that he's just the sort of guy who cannot say no to women. But if the situation were taken seriously (which it's not of course) then John could be seen as just plain greedy. Mary caters to his physical needs, always offering him food, drink, and rest. Barbara attends to his sexual desires, always prompting him to go to bed - though not to sleep. Meanwhile, the gay neighbor from upstairs, Bobby Franklin, pops in from time to time to visit. His character is very flamboyant, flirtatious, often catty, and more than a bit intrusive, gay stereotypes seen many times before in comedies of the 70s and 80s.

Works on Stage, Not on Screen:

In early 2013, Run for Your Wife made its silver screen debut in London movie theaters. Directed by playwright Ray Cooney, the film received a limited release and was universally panned by the critics. Comments ranged from the adjectives like "witless" and "offensive" to words of warning such as "Run for the exit!" Yet, when the stage version premiered in 1983, it was a resounded success, running for nearly a decade, followed by countless regional productions.

Even today theaters all over the world perform this dated comedy, and people still flock to this farce. I have seen it first hand. While critics were booing the movie version, I was on stage as Stanley Gardner (acting like a complete fool) and the audience seemed to love every moment. So, why does it work on stage but not on screen?

The Nature of Farce:

A farce is a style of comedy in which a series of highly improbable events, mix ups, and misunderstandings occur. There are many successful films which are farcical in nature, from Buster Keaton films to idiotic crowd-pleasers such as Dumb and Dumber. However, a farce written for the stage, especially one of the British variety, has several aspects that don't translate well to the screen.

Most farces take place on a single set, utilizing lots of slamming doors, quick changes, and fast paced entrances and exits. These elements can be very entertaining to theater audiences because they are watching live actors who possess impeccable timing. In movies, such perfect timing is to be expected, thanks to the magic of editing. And a single set in a film becomes far too mundane for most movie goers. Also, the actor's performance in a farce is expected to be over-the-top reactions, an acting style that works well when the actor on a big stage with the audience stretching to the back row; that same performance seems cheesy or even distasteful when viewed on the big screen or the living room television.

The film version of Run for Your Wife has another problem. The script was originally written in the early 80s, and like many other comedies of its age, it is filled with stereotypical portrayals of gay men. According to several British critics, Ray Cooney's attempt to set his farce in 2013 failed, as the play still reeks with sexism and homophobia. Yet on stage, if directed well, Run for Your Wife can be performed as a period piece, similar to other farce revivals such Boeing Boeing. Audiences still enjoy farce on the stage, and the political incorrectness of an older farce becomes part of the joke. Although older audience members may be chuckling because they still retain those politically incorrect sensibilities, newer audiences may be laughing out of shock, thinking, "I can't believe comedies used to be like this!" In movie theaters, however, the few people who watched Run for Your Wife apparently just sat in quiet disappointment.

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