BUCHANAN'S FINEST HOUR
at Second City E.T.C.
Americans aren't likely to associate Terry Jones and Michael Palin with the stage. For comedy lovers on this side of the Atlantic, the television screen was Jones and Palin's medium: the mortally funny Monty Python's Flying Circus of course, as well as earlier jobs writing for Marty Feldman and David Frost and later TV efforts such as Ripping Yarns and Palin's recent Around the World in 80 Days. Still, the two writer-actors' roots are in the theater. Palin made his show-business debut at Birkdale Preparatory School in England, when he played Martha Cratchit in A Christmas Carol and fell off the stage. Palin met Jones at Oxford University, where they worked together in the school's Experimental Theatre Company.
From the Oxford E.T.C. the team has finally come to Second City E.T.C., thanks to Quando Productions' staging of Buchanan's Finest Hour. Written as part of a bill of two one-acts (the other was called Underhill's Finest Hour), this one-hour comedy apparently has been presented only once before, at its 1976 world premiere at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. The reason for the play's neglect is hard to fathom, given not only the popularity of all things Python-related but also the fact that Buchanan's Finest Hour is a screaming laugh riot.
Certainly fans of the Monty Python shows will recognize many familiar comic elements, from the overblown recordings of "Rule, Britannia" and "Pomp and Circumstance" played before the show to the script's plethora of pope jokes, kinky sexual allusions, silly accents, and nonstop slams at the cultural inferiority complex of postimperial England and the emotional excesses of Britain's continental neighbors. What's refreshingly different from Jones and Palin's often hyperactive TV work is the visual simplicity, even minimalism, of this play.
When the lights come up on the small E.T.C. stage, all the audience sees is a box. Later a stage crew condescends to bring onto the stage another box. Confined in these boxes are several people who are trying to get out, calling in vain for help from an oblivious universe and quarreling with each other about the reason for and solution to their imprisonment. Every new burst of verbal activity brings more laughter from the audience; the laughter grows louder as the characters' desperation grows greater. If the description makes it sound like a Sartre or Beckett play, that's because it is. But this variation on No Exit or Happy Days is less existential than political, as Jones and Palin toy with the simultaneous omnipotence and impotence reflected in the sadistic sideline laughter of the audience for whom the situation has been arranged.
Political doesn't necessarily mean serious of course; to Jones and Palin, absurdism is the essence of politics. The play's never-visible principal character, Sir Clive Henshaw, is a former cabinet minister turned to private enterprise--specifically the production of boxes, whose durability he is trying to demonstrate by having himself shipped in one by train. "British packaging is the best in the world," he proclaims, but the victory is painfully pyrrhic. "Airtight, too, isn't it?" he gasps from inside the crate. "Yes, that's the wonderful thing--absolutely airtight."
Accompanying Sir Clive in the box is his publicity agent Harrington, who dreamed up the ridiculous stunt that now threatens his and his client's lives. A little less loyalty would have been a lot more useful--if he'd stayed outside the box, Harrington could have opened it--but the interdependence of the upper and lower classes is as unshakable as it is deadly, in Jones and Palin's satiric vision. As the two Brit twits gab on about how they're going to escape from an escape-proof box, they soon discover they're not alone; the crate is also inhabited by a Frenchman, whose apparent penchant for bondage--he's bound in ropes and chains, and protests vehemently when the Englishmen try to free him--turns out to be professional: he's an escape artist. Being French, he's a very passionate escape artist, proclaiming in a ludicrous Inspector Clouseau accent his love for his wife, who's also in the box. She may be dead, she may be decapitated, the Frenchman admits--"but I love her." Along about this time a second box arrives--this one containing a silent pope and the voluble Italian spokesman for "Hizza Holiness"--and things start to mount to a fine frenzy, as the bonds of polite manners and stiff-upper-lip restraint give way to unfettered anxiety and rage.
The key to Buchanan's Finest Hour's success or failure lies in the voices of the actors--the dynamic gradations, the shifts in tone, the rhythm and volume of their interplay, and of course the fine line between silliness and stupidity in the just-off-kilter accents. Director Kim "Howard" Johnson knows the silly-smart Monty Python style backward and forward--he's been a friend of the group since he met them in 1975, when he was a college student and they were in Chicago to publicize their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the anecdote about Michael Palin's childhood stage debut comes from Johnson's book The First 200 Years of Monty Python). Letting the simple sight gag of the crates speak for itself, he pays close attention to the actors' speech; their readings are Python perfection, brimming with hysteria while resolutely maintaining the proprieties of civilized discourse. It helps that for the English characters Johnson has cast two real Englishmen, Roger Smart as Henshaw and Nicholas Cross Wodtke as Harrington; but Tim Glisson as the Frenchman and Sherman Shoemaker as the Italian are equally fine and funny, as is Bill Russell as the bad-taste master of ceremonies who bursts on in the final twist ending to this exceedingly funny play.