John Feffer is a foreign policy expert on Eastern Europe and East Asia at the Institute for Policy Studies — a very inside-Washington job. Not necessarily someone you’d peg as a funny guy. Yet when he’s not writing think pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, he’s penned a few plays. His most recent, Clowntime, a dystopian comedy in which he also stars, is a biting takedown of politics and society.
This COVID-aware performance presented at Dance Loft on 14 for about 25 mask-wearing audience members seated on liberally spaced folding chairs. The 70-minute play follows Christopher Blank from his boyhood through college and into the highest echelons of politics in a near-future alternate universe where being funny is the only way to succeed and get ahead.
Christopher — played by Feffer, a Larry David look-alike with bald pate, glasses, shlumpy demeanor — was born with a most egregious disability in this future world: no sense of humor. Feffer takes us through young Christopher’s early development, including his deprecating parents who can’t comprehend his inability to crack a smile. Soon he’s off to Groucho look-alike Dr. Gumballs, a child psychologist with an eyebrow-raising smirk. Smile-less Christopher learns his HQ — humor quotient — is too low to get into a decent college, so he’s off to a fictional Florida campus where he inadvertently ends up as the class clown.
Director Yury Urnov suggested a simple set of stacked extra-large moving boxes that serve as a screen for the projected cast of supporting characters, who appear in cameo-like segments. Video and sound designers Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich fill out the one-man live performance with a phalanx of pre-recorded actors playing classmates, Christopher’s love interest Miranda, a duo of lip-syncing DC-style interns who sing a Rogers and Hammerstein parody “My Favorite (Washington) Things.” Tatiana Karpekina’s oddball props, too, play a key role in moving the tale forward with a light but useful touch.
As a humorless nerd, Feffer makes a great straight man in his convoluted dash through a dysfunctional future dystopia that takes his lead character into the heart of Clowntime nation’s most fearsome enemy, the Federation — a humorless Soviet-style state with a “dear” leader. Ultimately Christopher’s saving grace requires him to tell the one classic joke that every American knows.
Clowntime takes on the humor quotient with bite, piquantly satirizing all that’s wrong with the sociopolitical foundations of late 20th-century and early 21st-century democratic governance with smart snark. Feffer tickles funny bones by alluding to great comics through the ages — from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Seinfeld, and Keegan-Michael Key — and inventing a nation obsessed with yucks and snickers. If only our own country’s biggest worries were the secretary of state’s latest pun or knock-knock joke.
Saving the world from its grim humorless political maneuverings through comedy feels right at this moment. After nearly a year and a half of pandemic-induced isolation, unemployment, and loss, with Clowntime Feffer knows just what the doctor ordered and politicians and people alike need: a few good, long belly laughs. That Clowntime is also instructive of larger issues about finding one’s true life purpose, finding meaning in what can feel like a hollow existence when society’s mores don’t align with your own; and striving for more just and functional leaders. Or as the late actor Peter Ustinov once said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”
Runtime: 70 minutes