The Colonel's Holiday
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 23, 2005
Frank Butterfly, a loud-mouthed, high-waisted narcoleptic, and his lovely, well-educated wife Mrs. Butterfly, are getting ready for their annual Christmas Party. They're a fun couple—sorta like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets The Simpsons. Tonight they have their hands full: their son Sam is coming home for the holidays, and he turns up with a ditzy bimbo named Barbey Whyer who, his mother insists, is his beard—she's certain he's gay, even though he refuses to say so. Also on deck is Jack Motor, Mrs. Butterfly's brother, confined for the last several years to a wheelchair after he developed a brain tumor; Gene McCowell, a flute player who has brought along a homeless derelict in a filthy army uniform who seems to think he's a colonel; and Gene's mother, Millicent, a wacko former stage star who now survives making infomercials but still believes, with Jaques, that all the world's a stage; she calls everybody Madeline: she makes Norma Desmond look competent.
But it's all good so long as Cecilia, Uncle Jack's evil ex-wife, doesn't show up.
But—as she will be the first to admit—she's the villain, and so of course she shows up. She's planning to: take possession of the house, sell everyone who lives there into white slavery, and find the Holy Grail, which she believes is buried somewhere on the property.
Given the way that this hilarious and unpredictable farce has been progressing, we are not in the least surprised when, in the very next scene, Mrs. Butterfly wanders on holding what looks suspiciously like a Holy Grail, pressed into service as a candleholder.
Later plot developments will involve: a rare 1948 Forch wedding dress that Sam needs and that Millicent just happens to have in the steamer trunk that she brought with her; a couple of characters getting caught in the dangerous, howling blizzard that seemed to begin the minute Cecilia arrived; a party game in which everyone votes, Survivor-style, to throw somebody off the "holiday"; and the famous Hebrew prophet Moses. In Brian Silliman's ingenious and relentless non-sequitur plotting, all of this somehow not only makes sense, it feels natural. So do audacious bits that positively should not work, like a long post-modern monologue in which Cecilia breaks the fourth wall to discuss her function in the drama, punctuated by evil villain laughs of the sort that would have been right at home on a 19th century Mississippi River showboat; or Millicent's bizarre monologue in which she repeats, practically word for word, a monologue just delivered by Uncle Jack. (You have to see this to believe it.)
What it all is, is howlingly funny. Silliman is a writer to watch, with a comic sensibility that's dark, off-the-wall, eclectic, and on-target. The Colonel's Holiday is a play where, if you're not laughing at what just happened this minute, don't worry—you'll be laughing at what happens in the next one or the one after that. And it's neatly and cleverly tied together with a Pirandelloish ribbon.
Now, just to set expectations squarely, I should say that The Colonel's Holiday is not perfect—there are gags that don't quite land, and Silliman is certainly guilty of moments of excess and self-indulgence that slow down the proceedings. (My sense, too, is that he overdoes the vulgar language—less would probably be a lot more when the Butterflys call each other "assholes" over and over again.)
There's some unevenness among the performances as well, but the show is, not unexpectedly, occasion for some grand, over-the-top comic turns. Heading the honor roll is Abe Goldfarb in the title role, as Gene's mostly silent guest who figures in the plot in ways you will sometimes see coming and sometimes not. In repose, using just his eloquent features to react to what's going on around him, he is subtly brilliant; and when called upon to take the spotlight for a couple of moments of broad physical comedy, he does not at all let us down. Another standout is Gretchen Foulk as the wonderfully strange Millicent McCowell—she embraces this lady's stagy lunacy with the enormous gusto that's required: this is a woman who decorates other people's living rooms with framed photos and theatre posters from her past (one of the former, a picture of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, she steadfastly declares is actually herself; one of the latter is a showcard for a production of Equus, directed by and starring Millicent). Fine work is also done by Anna Chlumsky in the relatively small (but very funny) role of Barbey; Larry Lees as hapless, handicapped Uncle Jack; Ronica Reddick as the dastardly Cecilia; and the playwright himself, Brian Silliman, suitably bombastic as Mr. Butterfly, a role he is clearly several decades too young for.
(I say that last bit not to deride Silliman's acting but to make clear that he is a very young actor/playwright, which means that we can hope for lots more fun stuff to emerge from his pen in years to come.)
Sets and lighting (by Derek Brashears), costumes (Alicia Andrews), and makeup (Cat Johnson) are all effective; the whole production is smartly helmed by director Leah Carroll, who ensures that the pace never, ever flags and that we are almost always distracted by events like—to pick one example out of the air—the Colonel and Frank (holding a shovel) chasing Cecilia (holding the Grail) chasing Mrs. Butterfly, all around the set, lap after lap after lap.
A good time is had by all.