Audiences Should Probably Say No To 'Yes, Prime Minister'
Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's sitcoms Yes, Minister and its continuation, Yes, Prime Minister, are rightfully considered jewels in the crown of British comedies. Blessed with a trinity of superb actors, a ripe setting and scripts that are burnished gems of sardonic wit, the shows are still thoroughly enjoyable today. So when I read that Jay and Lynn had created a play called Yes, Prime Minister and had secured an impressive cast, I was excited to see it. Unfortunately, through no fault of the actors, the U.S. premiere of the production at the Geffen Playhouse is strained, prolonged and seems a bit dated.
Cabinet Secretary Humphrey Appleby (Dakin Matthews), a lifelong civil servant in the British government, sees his job as keeping things running according to the dictates of the civil service, regardless of whatever the Prime Minister wants. This results in obfuscation and manipulation, two things his colleague Bernard Woolley (Jefferson Mays) isn't entirely comfortable with. Humphrey wants the current PM, Jim Hacker (Michael McKean), to sign a deal with a representative from Kumranistani for trillions of dollars. This would require joining the EU to get paid, something Jim doesn't want to do. It's the representative's private request, however, that causes the real problems.
McKean is expertly funny as Jim, an intelligent man who isn't as smart as he thinks he is. Although the PM is primarily concerned with retaining his job, McKean makes him a sympathetic lead regardless. Matthews is low-key and droll as Humphrey, and his delivery of deliberately confusing speeches to stun Jim into compliance received frequent applause on the evening reviewed. Mays is terrific as the stressed Bernard, and his demonstration of Bernard attempting to look casual and failing miserably is a comedic highlight. Tara Summers excels as the crisply professional advisor Claire, and Brian George is dryly amusing as the honest Kumranistani Ambassador.
Lynn's direction lacks energy and the pacing lags as a result, but most of this derives from the static nature of the script. Jay & Lynn's writing in the original sitcoms were marvels of concision and wit, but this show feels like it has a half-hour plot elongated unnaturally to four times the length. The main story device, which I won't reveal here, seems like something modern government officials likely wouldn't blink at and thus makes all the flustered hysteria here seem a bit much. None of this would matter if the show was consistently funny, but there are a lot more mild chuckles than real laughs, which is too bad, considering the high level of talent gathered for this production.
"Yes, Prime Minister" plays through July 14 at the Geffen Playhouse. Tickets are available online.