He’s obsequious, ruthless, condescending, shrewd, and self-aggrandizing. He is, in fact, the very model of a modern major bureaucrat. And nobody does that better than Dakin Matthews.
Matthews, who has had a long, illustrious career as an actor in films, television, and theater, is also a playwright, director, scholar and translator of 17th century Spanish plays. He is ubiquitous, having appeared just this past April in a key role in “The Nether” at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre and earlier as Col. Stonehill in the Coen Brothers’ 2011 remake of “True Grit.”
Currently Matthews is starring, with Michael McKean, in the American premiere of the British farce “Yes, Prime Minister” at the Geffen Playhouse.
The genesis of this hilarious production was the British television series “Yes, Minister,” which ran from 1980 to 1984 and was succeeded by “Yes, Prime Minister” from 1986 to 1988. Created by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the series were massive hits and now, more than 30 years later, the two writers have transformed the latter into a full blown two-hour play with Lynn directing.
McKean plays the rather clueless prime minister who responds with relief to the constant manipulation of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the cabinet secretary played by Matthews. McKean is given to such patriotic gibberish as “I am the people’s leader; I must follow them.”
But when it comes to gibberish, nobody can match Matthews. In two seemingly endless soliloquies he manages to avoid answering a question with a mere yes or no and goes on to elaborate in perfectly delivered rhetoric that is so histrionic as to earn him two tumultuous rounds of applause from the audience.
McKean, who is no slouch himself as a comic actor (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”), is a perfect foil for Matthews and the others as he struggles with the myriad problems of the day: oil, civil service benefits, illegal immigrants, the European Union, and his rather cynical take on government in general. (“The government stays free of the taint of professionalism,” he says.)
But the play devolves into semi-slapstick at the newest crisis: the demand by the Kumranistani Ambassador (Brian George) for three prostitutes for the evening: “one Asian, one European, and one black.” Or, as somebody says, “equal opportunity fornication.”
Can the prime minister be a party to pimping for the ambassador?
That is followed by a riveting discussion between the ambassador and the prime minister about their cultural differences, the moral and ethical values of their societies, and, most critically, the threat of the ambassador to cancel a multi-trillion pound loan and access to Kumranistan’s oil.
This throws the British hosts into a mind-boggling quandary in which they contemplate solving the problem by having the ambassador assassinated or “asking the White House to send a drone.”
“It isn’t a question of right or wrong,” the prime minister says. “It’s choosing the lesser evil.”
“It wouldn’t be the first incidence of prostitution at Chequers (the prime minister’s residence, where the play takes place),” said Claire Sutton (Tara Summers), the special policy advisor to the prime minister. “Except this time they’d be selling their bodies, not their souls.”
Sutton also ponders what diplomatic name they can give to the work that the prostitutes would perform. “Euro job,” she comes up with, “but what would we call the girl who performs it?” she wonders.
“A urologist?” chimes in Bernard Woolley (Jefferson Mays), the principal private secretary to the prime minister, who is a laugh riot on his own. A humorless worrywart with a permanently furrowed brow, he is continually correcting other people’s metaphors or explaining their inconsistencies. It is he who provides the moral compass that everyone is trying to ignore and he more than holds his own with this formidable cast.
It’s notable that throughout this broad British comedy the principals are continually looking over their shoulders at “what the Americans do” and being cynical and snarky about American policies and activities. In the end, however, they come up with a snarky solution that would make the Tea Party proud.
All of this long-winded, fascinating discussion takes place in the comfortably outfitted library of the prime minister and kudos must be given to Simon Higlett who designed this attractive set.
Kudos also to sound designers Andrea J. Cox and John Leonard who deliver thunderclaps to end all thunderclaps. Or can it be the voice of God?
“Yes, Prime Minister” will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through July 14. Call (310) 208-5454 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.