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Send Out the Clowns

Theater review: Laughing Wild


Published May 17, 2006 at 4:00 a.m.

The audience laughed. The critic cringed. And therein lies the conundrum: how to be both fair and honest in reviewing a show that most theatergoers seemed to enjoy -- with the exception of the one writing 1000 or so words about it for publication.

Most critics haven't treated playwright Christopher Durang with such circumspection. In the 1980s, Durang blamed New York Times theater critic Frank Rich -- whom he dubbed "his Lord Chief Executioner" -- for killing several of his shows, despite "ecstatic" audience response. One of those was 1987's Laughing Wild. In his notes to the play's published edition, Durang said he wanted to kill Frank Rich. And then he stopped producing plays in New York City until Rich traded the theater beat for politics in the mid-1990s.

The problems with Lost Nation's current production of Laughing Wild stem almost entirely from the script itself: a self-conscious and shrill accretion of rants and scenes as instantly forgettable as middling "Saturday Night Live" sketches. And in the two decades since its 1987 debut, the show has aged like Velveeta -- once just tasteless and textureless, now covered with mold. The opening-night audience in Montpelier seemed to enjoy itself heartily nonetheless, but I'm with Rich on Laughing Wild -- not laughing.

Durang doesn't even bother to name his two characters, instead calling them Woman and Man. This device is a rather grandiose grab at Archetype, given that the shallow characters are, at best, rather slim bundles of quirks and stereotypes.

The play unfolds in three sections. Woman and Man spin out separate act-long monologues. In the madcap third act, both characters finally come together to enact scenes in each other's dreams and nightmares, and to relive the one time their paths actually crossed: in the grocery store, when she whacked him on the head while he looked at canned tuna fish.

The Woman's rambling monologue feels interminable. As her stream of consciousness twists and turns, her invective spills over unlikely targets. Among the people she expresses a desire to kill: Diana Ross, Pearl Bailey and Mother Teresa. The Woman talks about having stayed in mental institutions; perhaps the homicidal fantasies are manifestations of psychosis. But the crude stereotype doesn't help make her character sympathetic, or even interesting. She focuses much of her venom on talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael. Cultural hot topic in 1987? Maybe. Today, who cares?

Deriding a beloved nun or parodying a forgotten pop culture celebrity -- the play ceaselessly flogs dull, dated or dubious material in this vein. This completely overrides any poignancy created by a troubled character struggling to heed Samuel Beckett's call for "Laughing wild amid severest woe."

In this production, Maura O'Brien wrestled gamely with the Woman's frantic and frenetic recollections and ravings. The harsh timbre of her voice, however, which often crept up in pitch as her character's stress levels rose, added a grating edge to the Woman's already-annoying words. O'Brien's work was further undermined by director Gregg W. Brevoort's choice of an '80s-style comedy club setting for her monologue, complete with unnecessary microphone and a faux-brick wall backdrop. It emphasized the passé and clichéd nature of her character's unbalanced humor, making it even more pathetic and less funny.

As the Man, Daniel J. Sherman created a much more sympathetic character -- out of tissue-thin dramatic material. His monologue boils down to: Mildly neurotic New York man experiments with trendy affirmations to overcome his anxiety. Sherman had an inventive repertoire of exaggerated gestures -- like tossing his "pain" over his shoulder -- that enlivened the silly futility of talking positive while thinking negative. His voice was smooth and soothing, and his deadpan delivery highlighted his excellent comic timing.

Sherman and O'Brien worked hard to make the most of the third act's series of bizarre vignettes. The technical team created some nice details to support the surrealism, which featured Rashomon-lite reenactments of the Tuna Can Incident, and the Woman -- impersonating Sally Jessy -- interviewing the Infant of Prague (a dashboard statue of Jesus). Creative elements included scenic designer Eddie Freund's stylized "Applause" and "On the Air" signs and costume designer Rachel Kurland's lavish robes for the overdressed Infant. Kim Bent lit the show seamlessly.

Despite the best efforts of the actors and the production team, the play flat-lined for me because the playwright fails to develop his characters. Woman and Man are vessels for Durang's shtick, not human beings taking shape on the blank canvas of the stage for us to invest in emotionally or react to viscerally. Well formed characters draw us in on some level, and by extension make us think about our lives, our world, or the human condition -- something other than "Where's the roll of duct tape to make this woman shut up?"

And I was stunned at how antiquated the play felt. Look at the cultural backdrops of 1987 and 2006: the morally bankrupt final years of a reactionary presidency prone to sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy and imperial abuse of power. The similarities are remarkable! But these larger themes don't register in Laughing Wild because Durang unleashes his socio-political birdshot with all the precision of Dick Cheney after a couple of noontime brewskis. Prey are clumsily stalked, but only superficial collateral damage occurs.

Meanwhile, more important targets are left carelessly by the wayside. Did Durang intend to hit them, or did he just want to vent about what was bugging him at the moment? He hits some issues, albeit awkwardly, with real staying power -- AIDS, the ozone -- but doesn't give them any more weight than ones with the shelf life of unrefrigerated yogurt. The Meese Commission? I hated Reagan with the best of them, and even I can't remember what that was. Thank God Shakespeare didn't waste a lot of iambs on the latest flapdoodle at the Privy Council.

Durang has often railed against updating the cultural references in his plays. But curiously, the 1996 Dramatists Play Service edition of Laughing Wild contains 20 pages of Durang's notes and suggestions for deletions, changes and updates. He chides himself over some particularly ephemeral choices: "I'll have to curb myself of using current references with such short shelf life." He notes that one option is to make no changes, and perform the play as a "period piece." This is what Brevoort chose. I think it was a serious mistake.

I laughed a little at some of the sight gags and physical comedy. But I didn't find the funny in the hackneyed comedy-club material, such as the New York taxi driver jokes. And I couldn't bring myself to laugh at the mentally ill Woman's woe.

It seems the audience on opening night disagreed with me. Most people in the house laughed a lot throughout the show. And yes, at times they laughed wildly.