By David Finkle
By Douglas Carter Beane
Drama Dept. (closed)
The Play What I Wrote
By Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben
Lyceum Theatre (closed)
Dying is easy; comedy is hard
-- Sir Donald Wolfit's supposed last words.
Zero Mostel once did a comedy sketch for a television
special where he sat in an auditorium seat surrounded by a dozen or
so well-dressed fellow spectators. As they all faced the camera, garbled
conversation was heard, spoken by offscreen actors understood to be
performing a play. Listening to the unintelligible banter, the people
around Mostel laughed heartily while he shed tears. When they began
abruptly to cry, however, he just as abruptly started guffawing.
The apparent point of the hunk of material was
that Mostel, himself an obstreperous comic actor, was out of step in
a mainstream crowd. They were either impervious to his status or unaffected
by it. A secondary implication was that what makes one man laugh will
not necessarily be even slightly risible to the next. In some ways,
the Mostel routine recalls the old slipping-on-a-banana-peel sight gag:
some on-lookers might yuk it up, while others would more routinely empathize
with the pain and humiliation endured by the slipper.
But who can be definitive about the disparity?
When Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard,
gave a summer course called "Wit and Humor," he was asked for his considered
opinion and could only respond, "Literary criticism has always been
more comfortable with high-minded theories of tragedy than with trying
to explain comedy. It's tragedy whose existence is easy to explain and
laughter that seems mysterious."
His statement, of course, supplies wiggle room
to anyone assessing comedies, and that extends to Mondo Drama
and The Play What I Wrote, two comic plays recently causing
many Manhattan attendees to slap their thighs and hold their sides while,
elbow to elbow with them, others are silently thinking, "What's so goddam
amusing?" Curiously enough, both comedies--the former a homegrown off-Broadway
enterprise, the latter an English import on Broadway--have certain similarities:
they feature casts of three and are more accurately described as comedy
revues with a unifying theme.
Mondo Drama is playwright Douglas Carter
Beane jumping on the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane as a springboard
for a series of satirical sketches that comment about the way we live
now. He's making the not-so-subtle claim that today's mondo isn't much
different from the figuratively and literally dog-eat-dog global environment
four decades back. Possibly convinced that things are much worse now,
he has written his jokey treatise for three women whom he dubs Prima,
Secunda and Terza in keeping with the flick's appropriated Italian title.
The Play What I Wrote has been structured
by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben for three men--McColl,
Foley and Toby Jones. (A fourth actor is required, since a "surprise
guest"--not much of a surprise at all when it's Roger Moore--arrives
for a second-act turn.) The source material is the oeuvre of comics
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, for whom Braben wrote, primarily in the
1970s when the team became television icons in Great Britain. The narrative
thread--connecting what seem to be versions of Morecambe and Wise routines
with which British televiewers may be familiar--is that McColl is itching
to leave the double act so he can appear in the play what he wrote,
which is called A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple. The
punning title is a fair promise, or warning, of what's to come in the
way of verbal humor.
But if comedy is in the ear and eye of the beholder,
does that mean there are no absolute criteria by which to judge what's
sturdy literary matter and what's not? Can a critic say anything more
than, "Look, this is what goes on here, and while I don't think it's
successful, you might"? Or, conversely, "I think it's effective, but
you might not"? Does it all come down to the difference between the
bumps on one man's funnybone as opposed to another's?
Perhaps not. Mondo Drama and The
Play What I Wrote offer indices to gauge the authenticity of true
humor. As with any writing that builds on conventions, certain elements
are required. To start, the basic premise needs to be original or fresh,
or at least the treatment of it has to be. With Mondo Drama,
Beane does seem to be on new, or at least not overdeveloped, ground.
The play's very allusion to the savage world that Mondo Cane
purported to reveal suggests--by way of grainy footage projected on
the show curtain and portentous opening narration--that contemporary
social and political situations are about to be sent up savagely.
But within minutes a truism of revues kicks
in: momentum has to be gathered with each succeeding sketch, with each
skit topping the one before it, or at least equaling it. The failure
to achieve this goal explains why the adjective "uneven" so often crops
up in revue reviews. So while the premise for Mondo Drama is
solid, the premises for the sketches as they pass are, uh, uneven: meat-packing-district
drag-queen prosties revealed to be middle-class women; a society lady
who adopts a black child in order to keep up with the Blaine Trumps;
debutantes sold into white slavery; women in an African tribes discussing
outlandish fertility strategies while scoffing at intercourse; Amsterdam
hookers who swap recipes while posing for prospective clients. In these
segments and more, Beane either finds the stale angle and sticks with
it, or--in the instance of the debutante slaves and the African women--takes
an outre approach when something grounded in an unfortunate contemporary
truth would have been more effective. Granted, AIDS is a challenging
topic for jests, but it's a more immediate concern for women in Africa
than the one Beane sees fit to rib.
Judged on their premises alone, the Beane sketches
that actually have some surprise quotient number only three. In one,
a devout Catholic sees a vision of the Virgin Mary though there's evidence
that priests taking liberties with an altar boy have something to do
with the apparition. In another, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa chats
post-modernly with a performance artist whose work involves cosmetic
surgery. In the third, members of The Old White Man's Women's Auxiliary
speak out on behalf of their husbands' bigotry. Each of the segments
delivers a frisson of delight, and had Beane been inspired to work at
that level throughout Mondo Drama, he would have had something.
Which brings up the next requirement for genuinely
funny skits: funny lines. (Duh, as they say.) On this meter, Beane scores
more heavily and is rewarded by making even some of those most resistant
to his work inclined to forgive its deficiencies. "Hello, I'm Mona Lisa--I'm
art," the Gioconda announces to her conversation partner. A witch at
a black mass upbraids those in attendance by declaring, "There was a
time when a witch was the source of all suffering in the world. Now
the other religions are moving ahead of us in evil deeds." A middle-class
woman posing as a hooker and looking for a straight man asks about a
prospect pointed out to her, "The big number with the gravelly voice
and the swagger and the blue blazer?" She's answered, "No, next to Fran
Lebowitz." Pretty funny, although the last gag is also indicative of
Beane's penchant for famous-name quips. The Lebowitz dig also hints
at the play's many oblique put-downs of women, often a giveaway of a
gay-male sensibility. As is the incessant quoting of lyrics to show
Yet another rule of good sketch writing, which
Beane either disregards or can't follow, is finding a rollicking tagline.
Monty Python's John Cleese et al got around this genuine challenge by
cutting away from a sketch before it had time to end. Beane doesn't
avail himself of that sly evasion. No, he goes for it and, more often
than not, misses. The society climber with the hungry child on her hands
says triumphantly, "This will be the issue of my life, the starving
children, my reason for living, my cause. And Brooke can't have it."
(In the script Beane types the last five words as all caps and adds
three exclamation points.) Miso Shy, who also confides "me so shy,"
ends a pitch for human flesh dim sum and the like by recommending number
35 on her establishment's menu "because you wonton the velly best."
Even the deft Mona Lisa sequence ends with a thudding, "Hey, I'm a masterpiece."
More moan than Mona, you could say.
Revue has traditionally counted on personalities
to help it land solidly--stars for whom the material is tailored or
comic actors equipped to take the lines and run with them. Beane got
lucky with Siobhan Mahoney, Caroline Rhea and Miriam Shor, as well as
with director Christopher Ashley, who knew how to handle the women if
not how to get the author to do his best work. Changing costumes and
wigs with alacrity, the women polish the silver-plated pieces as if
they were sterling and do more than their share to make Beane sound
better than he is. Sitting on the auditorium seats that are the play's
set and facing the audience for the ol' we're- watching-you-while-you're-watching-us
bit, they even make Beane's soupy concluding sallies about loving the
pervert in everybody work better than they should. The cast suggests
an update of the phrase "the singer not the song." In their case, it's
"the comic not the comic line."
The comedy prescriptions from which McColl, Foley
and Braben avert their attention with The Play What I Wrote
also center around originality or the lack thereof. (By the way, there
is a difference between dismissing rules and knowing them well enough
to be confident while breaking them. Rule-breaking from the latter vantage
point is practically a sine qua non of adventurous comedy or adventurous
art of any kind, for that matter.) The McColl-Foley-Braben farrago isn't
particularly original in either its concept, execution or playing.
Dusting off old comedy skits, even if they are
associated with the venerated Morecambe and Wise, and then inking in
a guest star isn't a promising formula. To the contrary, it instantly
gives the impression that what's in store is not so much a play as a
television variety hour (and this in an age when television variety
hours are all but defunct). As McColl and Foley parade silly walks and
silly songs and unrestrained puns and comic names (the event's producer
Mike Nichols is lampooned as Mike Tickles), the pair do nothing to contradict
the creaky variety-hour atmosphere. Not with pokes at fading celebrities
like Robert Goulet. Not with lines like, "Her teeth are like stars,
they come out at night," which most members of any given audience will
recall from their school yards.
Perhaps the writers subscribe to the theory that
relentlessly delivering old-hat japes becomes, by some show-biz alchemy,
new-hat. (With The Producers, Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan demonstrated
it could still click. But McColl, Foley and Braben don't have that skill.)
Or perhaps they subscribe to the theory that if you string together
enough hoary gags the crowd will eventually succumb to sheer numbers.
It doesn't happen in The Play What I Wrote, despite the occasional
admirable old crack. Late in the show, when the guest star comes upon
Foley and Wise in their sight-gag bed--they're standing--he (or she)
asks, "Can I come in?" To which Foley replies, "You can, but you'll
have to make up your own lines." Maybe you had to be there, but it's
worth a chuckle.
It's possible that McColl and Foley could have
worked performing magic on the play and the play-within-the play if
they had been the masters of inspired foolery that their advance press
touted. Some years ago they proved themselves capable entertainers when,
as The Right Size, they brought Do You Come Here Often? (a
show set in a public toilet) to Manhattan's P. S. 122. But can they
really be meaningfully compared to Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and the road
pictures, as their director, Kenneth Branagh, suggested in The New
York Times?. Not really, not this time. They're more reminiscent
of the male comedy teams that followed Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in
the late 40s. They most closely resemble the team of Pepper Davis and
Tony Reese, whom Ed Sullivan often featured on, yes, his variety hour
and whose signature routine was a take-off of night-club acts. In that
routine they were breathless chorus boys who had to make a talentless
headliner look good.
Trevor Griffiths's Comedians, which
is not a comedy although it contains many somber laughs, was given a
superb revival this year--an underrated one because many critics dismissed
it as dated. They failed to notice that the play is actually about hatred
and intolerance, conditions which unfortunately haven't dated in the
history of humankind. In Griffiths's scorching drama, Eddie Waters,
who runs a Manchester night class for aspiring comics, has this to say
about his subject: "It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind 'em. It's
the attitude. A real comedian--that's a daring man. He dares to see
what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees
is a sort of truth, about people, about their situation, about what
hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all, about what they
want. A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty
well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release
tension, it has to change the situation."
This trenchant definition of situation comedy
offers yet another yardstick by which to evaluate Mondo Drama
and The Play What I Wrote. They leave their situations just
about where they found them.
[David Finkle is the chief drama critic
for Theatermania.com, the online theater magazine, and a regular contributor
to The Village Voice and other publications that cover the arts.]