“Yes, Prime Minister:” Wry, sly, Brit wit

LOS ANGELES – This play is in the tradition of the British drawing room comedy, which is characterized by witty repartee among usually upper class characters and largely set in the room of a house where guests are entertained. However, this work has one major difference: its drawing room is located in Chequers, the official countryside retreat of the British PM. That’s “PM” as in Yes, Prime Minister, the West End and BBC hit by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, which is now having its U.S. debut at the Geffen Playhouse here.

As such, Yes, Prime Minister’s bristling dialogue is decidedly political and full of humorous social commentary about the British power elite, plus the expediency and opportunism that characterizes affairs (figuratively and literally) of state. The barbs about the BBC, celebrity activism, and what may be the first drone strike joke launched from the stage of a major play fly fast and furious in English accents. There’s something rotten in the estate at Buckinghamshire, where the PM, his advisers and the Kumranistani ambassador have gathered at Chequers to try to navigate a path more circuitous than a slalom run in order to clinch a deal with a (fictional) oil rich Central Asian nation that could pull the UK and the European Union out of the grips of recession.

Needless to add, the careers – and collective asses – of the Prime Minister and his flunkies are also on the proverbial line. As members of the political class, survival of their positions – and pensions – are first and foremost in their thoughts, with the well-being of the British people a sometimes distant second.

The New York-born Michael McKean, who has been a guest star in numerous Christopher Guest spoofs and mockumentaries, including 2000’s Best in Show, 2003’s A Mighty Wind, and 2006’s For Your Consideration, and plays a Brit on Family Tree, the comedy series currently airing on HBO, plays the title character. McKean more than holds his own, but as Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, Dakin Matthews almost steals the show. Appleby is the consummate career civil servant who speaks in the bureaucratese jargon that George Orwell denounced in 1984 and in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” wherein Orwell criticized politicians’ “inflated style … A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity … politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

But keep your eyes on Sir Humphrey – behind his funky functionary lingo he is the ultimate survivor, and he’s not about to be voted off the sceptered island. Jonathan Lynn adroitly directs his cast, composed, surprisingly, mostly of Yanks, although Rogue Machine company member Ron Bottitta, who plays a cameraman and is the understudy for other roles, was born in London.

The other cast members from the colonies include Jefferson Mays (a veteran of Broadway, off-Broadway and the big and little screens) as Bernard Woolley, the unctuous, eager to please goody-two-shoes Principal Private Secretary to the PM. Tara Summers (who co-starred on the tart Boston Legal TV series) excels as the younger, hipper, scheming, less scrupulous Special Advisor to the PM Claire Sutton. As the Kumranistani Ambassador, Jerusalem-born Brian George (a veteran of TV sitcoms and dramas) saunters in and out of the Chequers drawing room in his slippers and robe. In a brief appearance as the BBC’s Director-General, Tim Winters scores points about the relationship between the fourth estate and the state – especially when the latter holds – and pulls – the purse strings. This is all the more delicious when one considers that a TV sitcom version of Yes, Prime Minister has aired on the BBC, biting the hand that feeds it.

The single set by scenic designer Simon Higlett, a West End stalwart, seemed to this untutored eye to perfectly capture the architectural ambiance of Chequers, that rural residence that goes at least as far back as the 16th century. Sound designers Andrea Cox and John Leonard’s sound effects almost literally had me jumping out of my seat a couple of times.

If, as Marx noted, the first time is tragedy, this American debut proves that the second time around is most definitely farce. Yes, Prime Minister is not a play for a nitwit – but for those who like their wit to be Brit, sly and wry, this reviewer resoundingly votes in the affirmative. Harrumph!

Yes, Prime Minister is being performed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., until, appropriately, Bastille Day, July 14, at The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: (310) 208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.

Photo: Michael Lamont/GeffenPlayhouse


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.