British theater is heady, chewy stuff — especially British farce, which typically excels in wit and wordplay. Consider, for instance, a playwright like Sir Tom Stoppard, who included in his masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a scene in which the two leads play a rapid-fire “Game of Questions” that is essentially verbal Ping-Pong on speed. In general, American drama post-Tennessee Williams lacks such linguistic finery. But for those pragmatic Brits, possessing a rapier wit and sharp tongue is sexy, a high achievement, and they like their art to reflect a superior intelligence.
Even the title of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus (Latin for “you may have the body”) contains a clever double entendre, at once an offering and a judgment. The play, which deals with the supposed loosening of sexual mores during the vaunted ’60s, casts a critical eye at the hypocrisy of “free love” in the hands of folks who are merely looking for excuses to be adulterous. The play is classic farce — corny, bawdy and nicely nasty, with lots of mistaken identity and spitfire dialogue that cues off cultural referents and innuendo.
Directed by Karen Scheeland, Very Little Theatre’s production of Habeas Corpus is a bit like a key party without the keys, where lonely, horny folks have gathered to swap body fluids without being very into it. The show, which gains momentum here and there, isn’t without appeal, and it occasionally strikes a funny note; still, an essential sense of passion and fun — of confidence, really — is absent. Bennett’s lines, which ring sharply off the discord of romantic dissatisfaction, are too often delivered without the zing they deserve, and poetic interludes, in which characters directly address the audience, are flatly recited, as if by rote.
What this production needs is more Oscar Wilde spirit: wry, metrosexual and gadfly malicious. There are several good performances; Tere Tronson is strong as Muriel Wicksteed, one half of an old married couple on the erotic skids; Heidi Anderson’s portrayal of the young, unmarried and pregnant Felicity Rumpers captures that character’s combination of naiveté and smarts; and Diana Aday gets it right as Mrs. Swabb, the play’s all-seeing maid/narrator. But the show is too stodgy, never really evoking the cultural collision of promiscuity and tradition that gave the ’60s its aura of discovery and folly.
Habeas Corpus runs through April 5 at Very Little Theatre; $12-$17.