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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Yes Prime Minister

"If you can't ignore the facts, Prime Minister, you have no business being in politics."— Bernard Woolsey
Jefferson May and Michael McKean
Photo credit: Michael Lamont
It's hard to vote against a witty comedy that assumes the audience is politically literate. In the long run, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's political satire doesn't sully the memory of their classic British sitcom from the '80's. And Lynn's production features three of the best character actors in American theater, Michael McKean, Jefferson Mays, and Dakin Matthews.

But it does run long. The two-hour-and-then-some comedy works about as well as most extended episodes of beloved TV shows. More becomes less.

The time frame has been updated though the main characters, their ages, and the basic set-up remain the same. Per usual, Prime Minister Jim Hacker (McKean) tries to maneuver around his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Matthews), while Permanent Private Secretary Bernard Woolsey (Mays) vacillates between the two.

The dynamic is fertile enough to fuel not just dozens of worthy small-screen episodes but, potentially, a satisfying stage adaptation. Amping up the energy and plot turns could, for example, create a farce different enough from the original to merit turning off the TV. The theatricality would also help inspire actors to create a distinctive spin on characters brought to indelible life by their predecessors, Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington.

Instead Jay and Lynn stay within the lines of the TV template. Appleby and Woolsey try to get Hacker to go along with a plan he'd reject if he knew its ins and outs. In this instance, the Middle Eastern country of Kumranistan is willing to bail out the UK, and the rest of Europe, with a much needed loan in exchange for pledging to buy the country's oil. The fine print of the plan involves England switching its currency to the Euro.

Appleby and Woolsey try to hide that piece of information from Hacker, hoping he'll sign on and then be unable to back out once he knows the truth. They're not villains, just unelected civil servants who get to keep their jobs while the elected ministers come and go. Their long-term perspective leads them to believe they know best what's good for the country.

Hacker, with the help of his trusted personal advisor Claire (Tara Summers), discovers their ruse. His refusal to go along won't necessarily scuttle the plan. But there's a greater potential stumbling block. The Kumranistan Foreign Secretary, who's staying at Chequers, wants to be serviced there by three prostitutes or no deal.

The plot sounds like something from the era of the British hits No Sex Please We're British or Run For Your Wife. At least those had running and door-slamming. Most of the playing time here is devoted to discussing the morality, logistics, and alternatives for acceding to the order.

McKean and Mays gamely attempt to physicalize their roles, but Lynn's production is often static. The first act closes with a scene in which the principals and the the Kumranistani Ambassador (the subtle Brian George) take a position, semantically and physically, and then refuse to budge.

If covered by cameras, the civilized pleasures of wit and erudition would probably suffice. Turnabout being fair play, the play has recently given rise to a new TV adaptation, with the West End actors performing the stage plot in 30 minute installments. I wonder whether the sitcom is using the West End script in which the Foreign Secretary wanted an underaged girl as opposed to the less objectionable orgy for this American premiere.

Besides that politically incorrect demand, and the play's inference that global warming isn't real, every other aspect of the production is enjoyable yet uninspired. Simon Higlet's sumptuous wood-paneled set, imported from the West End production, is a beaut. Sound designers Andrea J Cox and John Leonard provide blasts of thunder which would better fit a thriller but they insure the audience is awake.

McKean and the rest of the cast give sturdy performances. Matthews has a wonderfully off-handed way with Appleby's signature run-on explanations, filled with poly-syllabic specifics that create a smoke screen for his true intent. But they're used and performed the same each time. Like much else about the production, it's a case of diminishing returns.

Mays provides the most focus and invention. McKean supplies the most energy. In previous stage appearances, he's usually been the production's most fully realized figure. He made a convincing Brit in the Broadway revival of The Homecoming a few season's back, but is on less persuasive ground here. He's nonetheless a joy to watch.

He, Matthews, and Mays performed together in the recent Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, which proved abidingly relevant on the American political scene. If one is looking for a light comedy that's similarly smart about the British brand of governance, one could reasonably consider saying maybe to Yes, Prime Minister.

Yes, Prime Minister
by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Cast: Ron Bottitta, Stephen Caffrey, Brian George, Sasha Higgins, Dakin Matthews, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean, Matthew Floyd Miller, Tara Summers and Time Winters Set Designer - Simon Higlet
Costume Designer - Kate Bergh
Lighting Designer - Daniel Ionazzi
Sound Designers - Andrea J Cox and John Leonard
Production Stage Manager – Young Ji
Runs Tuesday to Sunday through July 14
Location: Geffen Theatre 10886 Le Conte Avenue Los Angeles, California 90024 (310) 208-5454
Reviewed by: Jon Magaril
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