Comedian Carl Reiner called his comic novel Enter Laughing, because that is the first stage direction that his 17-year-old main character is given, at his first ever-audition, and he makes a hilarious hash of it.
Reiner wrote his semi-autobiographical novel at the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, recalling his frustrating and sidesplitting effort to break into show business as a teenager from the Bronx in the 1930s.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Reiner is now 97 – even his son Rob Reiner is now a name for nostalgists — so it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is an old-fashioned feel to the musical comedy adapted from Reiner’s novel. Still, it makes sense that the York Theatre Company is reviving Enter Laughing, in a well-directed production with a solid cast of pros, as the first show in its 50th anniversary season. Part of their mission is to rediscover old musicals.
Even if that original (possibly apocryphal) first audition occurred a full 80 years ago, the York production gives it new life and laughs, thanks to Chris Dwan, who portrays David Kolowitz, a 17-year-old stage-struck delivery boy from the Bronx who dreams of stardom. At the audition, David first reads “enter laughing” as if it’s dialogue, which tries the patience of the old hammy director Mr. Marlowe (portrayed by the magnificent David Schramm.) So David takes a breath and launches into one absurd aria of fake laughing after another, closer to tone-deaf scales or yodeling. It’s terrible, ridiculous, terrific – far funnier than it should be. Indeed, whenever Enter Laughing calls for Chris Dwan to be a terrible actor, he’s terrific. Dwan (who can’t be as young as he looks) is the best bad actor I’ve seen since Jeremy Shamos played the bad Broadway actor in the 2014 film Birdman. In general, the missteps, awkwardness and sheer physical chaos of the play-within-the-musical is as delightfully silly as the scenes of destruction in The Play That Goes Wrong.
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Much of the rest of the musical shows its age, in various ways. Some of this is harmless. The theater program offers a glossary of all the old film stars whose names are dropped during the course of the show, providing short biographies of more than two dozen names, including Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. Allow me to speculate wildly that a theatergoer who’s never heard of Bette Davis is probably not the ideal audience for this musical. For the rest of us, the design team gives us a reason to laugh before we even enter Enter Laughing. An entire wall of the lobby at the York Theater on the Upper East Side is covered with famous old movie posters – all of which, on closer inspection, feature David Kolowitz’s name in the credits and his face in the photographs. There’s Kolowitz canoodling with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong; there’s Kolowitz as the face of both Frankenstein and King Kong.
Enter Laughing was adapted first into a Broadway play in 1963, starring Alan Arkin as David and Sylvia Sidney as his mother, and written by Joseph Stein, who the following year wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof. Stein subsequently turned his play into a musical, collaborating with songwriter Stan Daniels, who is better known as an award-winning television producer (co-creator of Taxi and writer for The Mary Tyler Moore Show!) The musicalized show, entitled So Long, 174th Street, was a flop on Broadway in 1976, closing after just 16 performances. The York reworked it and retitled it a decade ago; this is now the show’s third run at the York. The ideas behind many of Daniels’ 15 songs are cleverer than the actual lyrics and catchier than the melodies. Many of the songs are David’s fantasies – of getting his revenge (“Boy Oh Boy”), or of reaching impossible heights of stardom. In “The Butler’s Song,” Schramm is Marlowe, imagined as David’s butler explaining to Greta Garbo that David has no time to see her:
He’s screwing Dolores del Rio
that’s why he cannot speak to you
he’s screwing Dolores del Rio
and may not be disturbed ‘til he’s through.
Clearly, David’s fantasy of stardom overlaps with other adolescent fantasies. But it’s apparently not just David who harbors these sexual fantasies; it seems to be the authors as well. How else to explain how all four women in the ten-member cast play characters who dote on this awkward teenager? Three of them are older women, only one of whom is his mother. Although there has been some attempt to adjust the show to modern sensibilities — “Undressing Girls With My Eyes” is now “Romancing Girls With My Eyes,” for example — the songs and subplots that revolve around David’s pursuit of, or by, these women, help make the musical feel dated.
Then, there is David’s conflict with his parents, hard-working mensches from the Bronx who want David to be a druggist. At the end, of course, they come around – as such parents seem to have done in every such show business story since The Jazz Singer. As entertaining as Enter Laughing is, I look forward to a musical about a kid who chooses to be a druggist.
Enter Laughing is on stage at the York Theatre Company (at St Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, on 54th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022) through June 9, 2019. Tickets and details
Enter Laughing: The Musical. Book by Joseph Steinand music and lyrics by Stan Daniels, based on the play Enter Laughing by Joseph Stein from the novel by Carl Reiner. Directed and staged by Stuart Ross. music direction by Phil Reno. choreography by Jennifer Paulson-Lee. Sets by James Morgan, costumes by Tyler M. Holland, lights by Ken Billington & Jason Kantrowitz, sound by Julian Evans, props by Brooke van Hensbergen. Featuring Raji Ahsan as Pike, Farah Alvin as Angela Marlowe, Dana Costello as Miss B, Ray DeMattis as Mr. Foreman, Chris Dwan as David Kolowitz, Alison Fraser as Mother, Robert Picardo as Father, David Schramm as Marlowe, Allie Trimm as Wanda, and Joe Veale as Marvin. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.