‘Laugh’ at The Studio Theatre

To be sure, name a play Laugh and the gauntlet is thrown. Laugh or die trying.

The Studio Theatre’s world premiere production of Beth Henley’s new play, based on the antics of silent films from the 1920s, elicits laughter, a good deal of it — nay, an excellent amount if the play were only 100 minutes long and tight as a pair of lips suppressing a laugh.

Felicia Curry and Creed Garnick (Roscoe). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Felicia Curry and Creed Garnick (Roscoe). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Unfortunately, Henley’s new farce reaches 2 hours and has too much air, not enough invention, and way too many scene changes to gather any momentum; thus every scene feels like a new beginning with the same set of characters in a story meant as a device not a vehicle.

Now, none of this is to say that there isn’t a lot to like about Laugh.

Start with the design team of Andromache Chalfant (sets), Michael Lincoln (lights), Frank Labovitz (costumes), and Adam W. Johnson (sound) and Laugh is a visual feast of props, set pieces, wonderfully colorful attire, funny noises, and special effects.

Then move on to the actors: a six-person ensemble tackles the plethora of characters with great aplomb. They might not all have the clowning skills of a vaudeville performer or the immediacy of an improvisational artist, but they make each farcical representation distinct and frequently a hoot.

End with the composer and pianist Wayne Barker. His score and lively playing carries the play along, adding energy and verve under each scene.

What Laugh doesn’t have is the clarity and joy that a farce requires.

“Fast is funny,” my first directing mentor told me decades ago, which doesn’t mean that “fast” always translates into laughs. What it does mean is that without that metaphorically “fast” paced action all that wonderful comedy that playwright has written or that actors have discovered won’t ever take off.

Laugh needs to lose a few pounds; or a lot of pounds before its bird lifts off. Maybe by week two those wings will fly.

Yet, there is plenty of great stuff to enjoy in Laugh, albeit between periods of silent prayer.

Begin with the “hotties” played in drag by Evan Zes. Now, there is an actor having some serious fun with his roles. His portrayal of Mabel’s married Hollywood lover is also full of zany joy — the kind that is infectious in farce, if only more zanies provide their own Petri dishes.

Now, Helen Cespedes gives us Mabel, the orphan gold miner’s ward who goes to Hollywood to make it big. Her impersonations of faces and gestures from classic movies were cute and chucklely. And her transformation from hillbillyesque Mabel to Hollywood glamour queen was as total as it was instantaneous.

Then in splits Felicia Curry — yes, she brings a bit of her acrobatic skills to the slapstick proceedings, and they are more than welcome, as was her Miss Bee Sunshine who set the stage for this farce on steroids.

Jacob Ming-Trent, Creed Garnick (Roscoe), Helen Cespedes (Mabel), and Evan Zes. Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Jacob Ming-Trent, Creed Garnick (Roscoe), Helen Cespedes (Mabel), and Evan Zes. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

And who could forget Aunt Octobra Defoliant, played horribly wickedly by Emily Townley. Her death scene will go down in history as the most histrionical.

And her brother Uncle Defoliant, played with great buffoonery by Jacob Ming-Trent, never goes anywhere without a soft chair on his back.

Of course, we also have Creed Garnick’s poor Roscoe who has great difficulty ever doing the right thing, until he finally realizes just how much he adores the glamorously realized Mabel. Garnick’s Roscoe remains charming throughout, which is no small feat.

Director David Schweizer has kept the antics coming, albeit not quickly enough. And, although the pratfalls and fights and foils by Joe Isenberg (fight director) and Elena Day (movement consultant) were well choreographed, their comic punch missed the chin.

And what to do with all those scene changes? TBDL — To Be Decided Later.

All in all, Laugh is a pleasant enough theatrical experience, particularly for those with serious nostalgia for the silent film era, but go to the show thinking Chuckle and not an elbow banging guffaw and you’ll not leave disappointed.

For you’ll find no humor-catharsis in Laugh.

And given the fact that the story itself is a relative non-starter, and even the situational humor is limited by scenes that lack that “Lucille Ball gets out of trouble” direct action, it’s the “laugh” that really matters.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.

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Laugh plays through April 19, 2015 at The Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.