Funny Money lives up to its name

Don't miss one of the best comedies in years.

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If you're looking for a good laugh, don't miss Ray Cooney's hilarious Funny Money, now playing in a somewhat sloppy but still sidesplitting production by Tampa's Hat Trick Theatre.

Cooney, you should know, is one of the most successful writers of farce that modern England has ever produced, and Funny Money is good evidence that he abundantly deserves his fame. Using every trick in the book — mistaken identities, endless layers of deception, drunk scenes, sex mix-ups, police in hot pursuit and more — Cooney offers some of the silliest, wildest theater Bay area audiences can hope to witness. In fact, I can't remember the last time I laughed so loud and so often — or when innocent occurrences like the ringing of a phone or the making of a cup of tea have so often paid off in rich, visceral comedy.

True, the Hat Trick acting troupe isn't as razor-sharp as it might be, and the company's usual shoestring budget means a less-than-satisfying set and costumes. But even so, I found Funny Money deliriously entertaining.

Any funnier and they'll have to keep a medic on call in the lobby.

The play begins slowly enough with housewife Jean Perkins preparing to celebrate her husband's birthday over dinner with friends Vic and Betty Johnson. But when Henry Perkins comes home, it's not his birthday that's on his mind — it's money, £735,000 of it, all in £50 notes. It seems that somehow Henry's briefcase got switched with someone else's, and when he opened the latter, he found the moolah — which he has no intention of returning.

He reasons that he and Jean have just enough time to fly to Barcelona before "Mr. Nasty" — the unknown criminal to whom the money surely belongs — discovers the switch, finds the Perkinses and demands that they hand over the cash. And Henry isn't interested in a round trip: He wants to start life all over again, in foreign capitals where people know how to frolic. It's only a question of moving decisively.

And then the complications begin in the forms of a suspicious policeman, an impatient cabbie, dinner mates Vic and Betty, and another officer. Henry lies to everybody; Jean gets more and more drunk; one sergeant will be bribed into silence; another insists that some family member come and identify a corpse — and a mysterious caller keeps saying the words "Brif Kess" to anyone who'll pick up.

To make matters worse (or sillier), Henry and company are repeatedly caught in strange arrangements that look very much like incessant, imaginative sex. Add a missing cat named Pussy, a wife swap and a cuckoo clock, and the result is some of the funniest comedy to show up on local stages in years.

As directed by Jack Holloway, the action is quick, relentless and delicious. Still, only two of the show's eight actors exhibit the kind of physical self-control and split-second timing that such a farce demands. Best of all is Shawn Hemond, who as Police Sergeant Slater maintains unflappable seriousness in the midst of the craziest confusion. Hemond is so convincingly British, you'll think she got to Ybor City by way of the BBC. Also fine is Steven Fischer in the key role of Henry Perkins: No matter how extreme the situation becomes, he's always just moments away from the solution that will turn him into a man of leisure.

All the other actors turn in likable performances, though none has the consistent precision of Hemond and Fischer. Jonelle Meyer is very funny as Joan Perkins, a woman who takes intoxication to ever new levels of excess, and Derek Baxter, as crooked cop Sergeant Davenport, has the joyous swagger of a man who has a deep — and voyeuristic — appreciation of human failings. As Bill the cab driver, Jonathan Carter doesn't seem a bit English, but he's still an ingratiating presence, and as Vic Johnson, Paul McColgan is never so shocked by events as to forget his own instinct for the main chance.

Liz Sinclair, as Vic's wife Betty, is charming and sexy, a good-time girl who'd like nothing better than a hedonistic lifestyle; and Ben DeWitt, as a pivotal latecomer, is all intimidation, an evil robot without redeeming features.

Director Holloway not only organizes the action for maximum hilarity, he also orchestrates a dizzying series of physical gags involving multiple exits, a much-used sofa and an oversized red blanket. Joe Winskye's living room set has a frumpy near-realism, but Gi Sung's costumes are no more appropriate or consistent than you might find at a yard sale.

Act 2 of Funny Money isn't quite as delectable as Act 1, but it still provides several surprises and many good routines. Hat Trick Theatre deserves kudos for presenting Cooney in the Bay area — the first time he's been here as far as I can recall. Those in need of a laugh — and that's all of us, really — should take a field trip to the Silver Meteor Gallery. They're playing a farce there — and at its best, it's nothing short of uproarious.

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