Wacky ain’t for wimps.
Capturing that seltzer fizz, cream pie lightness of classic slapstick is far trickier than it looks. Even the queen of loopy Southern Gothic, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, slips on the banana peel trying to recreate the side-splitting in Laugh, a world-premiere comedy at Studio Theatre.
The impetus for the work, according to the playwright, is that she just wanted to laugh after the vexing experience of writing her previous play, The Jacksonian, a twisted and darkly funny comedy noir set in Civil Rights era Mississippi.
And who can blame her? We all need a chuckle now and then, especially after a winter that stripped the very marrow from our bones and the asphalt from our streets.
It’s worthwhile to dodge the myriad potholes along P Street to take in Laugh, which displays Henley’s deeply weird sense of humor as well as a pliable cast that hurls themselves with trampoline-like resilience into the demands of the script.
Henley’s other inspiration was silent movies—the dialogue cards, the live piano accompaniment, and pre-talkie stars Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Lillian Gish, Chaplin and the Keystone Kops.
Her florid dialogue often sounds like it was composed with a calligraphy pen, but the actors handle the curlicues and verbal arabesques with aplomb. The archness of the dialogue reminds you of a Coen Brothers movie at its most eccentric—“Raising Arizona” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” come to mind.
When things get too plummy, pianist/narrator Wayne Barker contributes droll commentary, spritely music and the stray well-timed sound effect. The production, directed with juggler’s dexterity by David Schweizer, is also given a boost by the athleticism and creative gusto of the performers.
Set designer Andromache Chalfant places most of the action against a large film frame, which the actors step in and out of. There are also klieg lights, red carpets, painted backdrops and scenery that rolls on and off stage like a Marx Brothers gag—all the accoutrements of zaniness.
Oh zany, where is thy zing?
Aside from some daffy bits—and you don’t know whether to give credit to Henley or the cast’s demented inventiveness—Laugh is more strange than funny.
Laugh is, on the surface, a shaggy dog story about Mabel (a luminous Helen Cespedes), a can-do kinda frontier gal who becomes a mining heiress after her guardian, Curly P. Curtis (Evan Zes), overdoes it with the dynamite. Her new-found fortune attracts the avaricious attention of a distant relative, Aunt Octobra Defoliant (Emily Townley), who tries to force a marriage between Mabel and her butterfly-chasing, yellow-bellied son Roscoe (Creed Garnick, balletic as a classic bumbler).
Needless to say, Aunt Octobra’s plan goes a-cropper, leaving Mabel and Curly to fend for themselves in the wild. They encounter, among other things, the owner of a pornographic Valentine empire (Jacob Ming-Trent) and his cowpoke sidekick (Felicia Curry)—more about that later—the mud-eating denizens of Nowheresville and other tribulations before Mabel arrives in Hollywood and makes it big.
She’s now Masha Snow, all slinky and mysterious with a baloney Bulgarian accent and backstory. But something is missing—could it be Roscoe, a cohesive through-story or something more interesting to do than vamp?
Alas, Laugh is no cliffhanger. It lurches along episodically in Act Two, veering from pratfalls to heavy-duty philosophizing as Henley writes herself into a corner, leaving Mabel and Roscoe nowhere to go but the afterlife.
Henley’s hereafter would give Flannery O’Connor, the grande dame of southern grotesqueries, pause. There are fluttery angel’s wings and sparkly stars, but also washerwomen dunking eternally bloody sheets, swinging saloon doors and elegies to endless love.
What—or as Mabel would say, whut?
March 11 – April 19
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $88
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 202.332.3300
This production took a lot of energy and know-how to indulge Henley in a laugh and the cast winds up saving the day. It is bizarro physical comedy brilliance when Evan Zes sashays across the stage playing a series of increasingly crepuscular shady ladies auditioning for the pornographic Valentine scion. He’s also a maniacal delight as a vulturine Hollywood director clad in leopard-trimmed jodhpurs and a tiny birthday party hat.
Felicia Curry’s agility is showcased in a series of wacky turns as a grizzled sidekick, a maiden named Miss Bee Sunshine whose looks are an acquired taste, and a snooty Hollywood life. Emily Townley adds the right amount of melodrama and restraint to the deranged Aunt Octobra and Jacob Ming-Trent brings the unexpected grace of a king-sized clown to his roles as a drunken uncle (where he elegantly pulls off the sight gag of being stuck in a chair and having to tote it where ever he goes) and the porno Valentine head.
With a silly first act and an existential and emotional second, the play doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a sendup or a stylistic experiment.
Laugh by Beth Henley . Directed by David Schweizer . Featuring Helen Cespedes, Creed Garnick, Evan Zes, Jacob Ming-Trent, Emily Townley, Felicia Curry . Composer: Wayne Barker . Set Designer Andromache Chalfant . Lighting Designer: Michael Lincoln . • Costume Designer: Frank Labovitz . Sound Designer: Adam W. Johnson . Movement Consultant: Elena Day . Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.