I seem to be having a run of plays that have made me think the authors all came up with a gimmick or a plot idea first and then devised a theme or point as an excuse to use it. Back in January, it was Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. (gospel singing); early in March, it was New York’s Signature Theatre Company’s Big Love by Charles Mee (modernizing Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women); and now it’s Beth Henley’s Laugh, a world première presentation also at Washington’s Studio. (The ROT reports on Choir Boy and Big Love were posted on 24 January and 18 March, respectively.)
On Sunday, 22 March, I drove into the District from suburban Maryland to see the matinee performance of Laugh at Studio’s Logan Circle base. It’s Henley’s first outing since The Jacksonian in 2013; her previous script was 2006’s Ridiculous Fraud (about which ROT contributor Kirk Woodward posted on 20 November 2014). Laugh started previews on the thrust stage of the Mead Theatre, Studio’s largest space at 218 seats, on 11 March, and opened on 15 March; the production’s scheduled to close on 19 April. Though I suspect that Henley and director David Schweizer, the writer’s longtime friend, have their eyes on a New York transfer, no plans have been announced.
Henley, 63 this May, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1974 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting. A member of the university acting troupe (Henley’s mother, Elizabeth, was an actress), she also wrote her first play at SMU, a one-act called Am I Blue. From 1975 to 1976, she taught playwriting at the University of Illinois in Urbana (now UI at Urbana-Champaign) and the Dallas Minority Repertory Theater. In 1976, Henley moved to Los Angeles, where she currently lives, and now teaches playwriting at Loyola Marymount University in LA.
The playwright has been identified as a “Southern” playwright all her career. (This is partly what Kirk examines in “Beth Henley and Ridiculous Fraud.”) Her first professionally produced play was Crimes of the Heart, which débuted as the winner of the Great American Play Contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979. It was produced Off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club the next year and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981. (The production won or was nominated for several other awards, including a Tony nom for Best Play, and the playwright’s film adaptation in 1986 garnered Henley an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.) Henley has also worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, adapting her own play for Miss Firecracker, 1989, and writing the scripts for True Stories and Nobody's Fool, both 1986. Through the late ’70s and the ’80s, Henley wrote essentially naturalistic tragicomedies about the small-town South, among them The Miss Firecracker Contest (1979) and The Wake of Jamey Foster (1981), emphasizing the female characters, but in the later ’80s and the ’90s, the writer branched out and began experimenting, though somewhat under the public’s radar. (Like Laugh at Studio, many of her premières have been in small rep companies outside New York City.) As Studio artistic director David Muse says, “If you haven’t paid attention to her work lately, I have a surprise for you: Beth Henley is a genre-defying stylistic innovator.” The Jacksonian, a play about the ’60s civil rights movement in her native city, Mississippi’s segregated capital, has been described as a noir play with a twisty and fragmented plot that depicts extreme violence; Ridiculous Fraud was dubbed a “crackpot comedy” by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times.
The gimmick in Laugh is that it mimics the antics of old movies, especially the silents and the early talkies. The leading characters are Mabel and Roscoe, named for silent-film legends Mabel Normand (1892-1930) and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933). Other characters are composites or parodies of Hollywood figures in the stars’ lives and the early film industry. After the work on The Jacksonian, a play the Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley describes as “a pitch-dark noir comedy with sex and drugs and a 1964 Mississippi murder,” Henley says, “I was exhausted to the extent I wasn’t sure I wanted to write another play.” After living with The Jacksonian, which American Theatre senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt calls “bottomlessly bleak,” the playwright thought, “I just want to laugh.” (There was a seven-year gap following Ridiculous Fraud, the longest lay-off of Henley’s career, because the dramatist reportedly had to come to terms with her rage at the subject matter of The Jacksonian, based on her own experiences as a young girl in her hometown.) Making people laugh, she adds, “is the most subversive thing to do,” and one thing that makes Henley laugh are old movies. “I just love the world of film, silent film, and of vaudeville,” she confesses, so she began experimenting with “the world without any language.” She was especially inspired by Normand and Arbuckle—Normand’s “rebellious spirit, her zest for life” and Arbuckle’s pratfalls (which are limned in Laugh by Roscoe as well as other characters).
Watching the silent comedies of Max Sennett and Hal Roach “just made me feel so good,” Henley asserts, and she became fascinated with a world that was just inventing itself. She also wanted to “explore identity,” the way we reveal and disguise ourselves to others, especially the way actors take on alternative personas. “So I imagined an ensemble of actors to tell this story,” Henley continues, “and I have two main characters who take on disguises themselves.” Thus was Laugh—which follows the adventures of Mabel, recently orphaned and independently wealthy, as she moves in with her greedy aunt who requires her nephew, Roscoe, to woo Mabel to control her fortune—conceived, and Schweizer’s production at Studio includes multiple disguises (including a few quick changes), falls, pies in the face (a gag Arbuckle pioneered in film), and other staples of vaudeville, music hall, and old flicks. Normand and Arbuckle, who made many film together, also both worked extensively with (and for) Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The staging shows quite a few instances of one actor or another channeling Chaplin and, it seemed to me, Stan Laurel and Margaret Dumont. As director Schweizer, whom Henley affirms she’s known and admired for many years and with whom she did a workshop in Palo Alto, California, observes, “It’s derived from a deep affection for silent movie and early talkie culture.”
As a tribute to old movies, the two-hour, episodic Laugh (which includes one intermission) is twice too long to sustain its internal humor. Unless you’re an indefatigable fan of old flickers—and I’m not all that fond of the silents, myself—the conceit wears thin before the first hour ends. But Henley purports to have other ideas on her mind. In her interview with the Studio literary director, the playwright states that Laugh “is a play about love, and about understanding yourself.” It’s also about greed and power—and who wields it (Normand was one of the first female movie stars to take control of her own career and start her own production company)—and the disparity between the illusion of Hollywood glamour and glitter and the gritty, sometimes nasty reality. (The play includes a slo-mo orgy, certainly a reference to the scandalous party that derailed Arbuckle’s career, and a shooting much like the one that tarnished Normand’s reputation.) The problem I had was that Henley’s purported themes seem secondary to the set-up and aren’t all that strongly delineated. They’re also not really topics that aren’t often explored in other plays, stories, films, and even TV shows. The result is that the theatrical framework, the homage to old movies and old Hollywood, overpowers the dramatic content. To borrow a line I quoted in the report on my last theater experience, Charles Mee’s Big Love, if the movie parody is Henley “scaffolding” the way Greek tragedy was for Mee, and she “threw away the scaffolding” as he says he does, Laugh would simply collapse because there’s not enough substance left to keep it standing. (Unless, as I said, you’re really queer for old flicks.)
None of this is the fault of the performances (unlike, say, the problem I had with the Studio production of McRaney’s Choir Boy). Schweizer’s six actors do yeoman’s work and more as the director seems to have encouraged his talented company to reach for the rafters. Not only do they execute the technical demands of Schweizer’s Laugh, the physical comedy, but they handle Henley’s overbaked lines, which she herself describes as “influenced by the written dialogue cards between the scenes in the silent films,” with conviction and grace—if that’s the word to describe what transpires in Henley and Schweizer’s slapstick universe. I don’t know the work of any of this cast, so I can’t say if Laugh marks a stretch for any of them or if they are all accustomed to this kind of extreme acting, but in either instance, they all did magnificent jobs with their roles (and four of the actors play multiple roles over the span of the play).
As Mabel, the ward of a prospector in the California Gold Rush who’s suddenly orphaned in a mining explosion that also leaves her wealthy, Helen Cespedes starts off as a crude, simple pumpkin, though one with native wiles that come in pretty handy soon enough, and ends up a Hollywood sophisticate who calls herself Masha Snow. Throughout, however, she’s self-reliant, strong, oddly pure (even as she nearly gets roped into a “pornographic Valentine” scheme that she essentially turns to her own advantage), and true to herself. Cespedes’s hillbilly miner comes off a little over-the-top, but since all the personas are caricatures and travesties anyway, this is a small cavil. Opposite her is Creed Garnick’s Roscoe, the butterfly-chasing sissy ward of the brother-and-sister team of Uncle Oscar and Aunt Octobra Defoliant who’s about to be married off to a presumed heiress, the ludicrous and monumentally unattractive Miss Bee Sunshine (until Aunt Octobra discovers the fiancée doesn’t actually have any money!). As Roscoe admits, he’s a devout coward but he’s devoted to movies and if some of Roscoe’s transformations seem inexplicable, Garnick, whose versatility seems boundless (he comes mighty close to Jefferson Mays’s turn as Montague Navarro in A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder; see my report on 16 October 2014), executes them with panache and glee, papering over many a small defect in the writing.
Mabel, too, is captivated by the movies and she and Roscoe spend all the ready cash she’s brought with her on them when she, too, becomes a ward of the Defoliants (to keep her around and happy, Aunt Octobra offers to subsidize her movie tickets). The two cinephiles essentially learn about life by imitating the movie scenes they seem to channel. But while Mabel transforms herself from rude bumpkin to Hollywood star, essentially taking on a new identity, it’s Garnick’s Roscoe who takes on the many disguises and temporary personas of, say, Chaplin in many of his films. (Consider 1925’s Gold Rush, for instance, in which Chaplin played The Lone Prospector, who in turn played an explorer, waiter, valet, millionaire, dancer, and lover, among others.) Some of Roscoe’s changes take place in view of us, so we get to witness his alteration. (Mabel’s shift happens off stage, during the intermission.) In performance, the main difference between the transformations is that Mabel’s is a change of character to a degree—Cespedes essentially plays two different ones, Mabel and Masha, even though her core remains unaltered—while Roscoe’s are merely disguises, so Garnick’s character remains visible throughout even as his role alters (however superficially—after all, this is a farce, not a tragicomedy!). Both actors handle the demands flawlessly.
It’d be nearly impossible in a relatively short report to detail all the roles and characterizations handled by the four-actor ensemble, but I’ll spotlight a few, with the understanding that this selection is not a judgment of their quality. Evan Zes starts off as Curley P. Curtis, Mabel’s uncle and the miner who dies discovering a rich strike in California that precipitates the events that follow. Near the end of act one, Zes does a turn as a succession of women auditioning for that pornographic Valentine series. (One reviewer affirms that this “is an actor having some serious fun with his roles.”) He dons a series of outrageous costumes, revealing his masculine chest and muscular legs (think Corporal Klinger on MASH or the dancers of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo), each more outré that the preceding one. He’s also Masha’s mentor and director when she becomes a silent film star in act two and he’s as demanding as any fictional parody of von Stroheim while at the same time, (literally) madly in love with his creation.
Felicia Curry first shows up as Miss Bee Sunshine, Roscoe’s one-time fiancée, a grotesque with missing teeth, dressed in a preposterous yellow dress only a costume designer with a peculiar sense of humor could have devised. She also embodies the pornographer’s rifle-slinging cowboy assistant (there must be something in the juxtaposition of a female actor in drag in the same scene as Zes’s female drag turn—but I can’t suss it out) with considerable swagger (all the more noticeable because Curry’s a small woman) and a panoply of other characters such as the film director’s angry wife. (A quick note here: the supporting ensemble of Studio’s Laugh is the product of color-blind as well as gender-blind casting. Just as women play men and vice versa, the roles aren’t assigned with any consciousness to race. It’s simply irrelevant.)
As the Defoliants (named, I suppose, because their rapaciousness and greed operates at a scorched-earth level—but that’s just a guess), Jacob Ming-Trent and Emily Townley depict perhaps two of the most eccentric characters I’ve encountered on any stage in recent memory. Ming-Trent, a portly man, never moves without an armchair attached to his butt (possibly a comment on “Fatty” Arbuckle who refused to perform roles in which his size—he, too, was a large man—was the source of humor, such as being stuck in a doorway or a chair). Ming-Trent also appears as the pornographer, whom Mabel blackmails into becoming her butler in Hollywood, and later as a Hollywood dowager in the mold of Margaret Dumont. (It’s he, not Townley, who seems to have channeled Groucho Marx’s foil.) Townley’s Aunt Octobra may be one of the nastiest villains on any current stage and the actress portrays her with a single-mindedness that suggests you don’t want to get in her sights. She may be poisoning Uncle Oscar and she certainly intends to do away with the wealthy Mabel—after marrying her off to the now-eligible Roscoe. Octobra’s demise comes when she starts scarfing down bon-bons, initially brought out for Roscoe to woo Mabel with, and accidentally swallows the diamond ring she gave her nephew to propose to Mabel with. The look of realization on Townley’s face when she understands what’s happened—Roscoe, Mabel, and Oscar have all fled—is almost priceless. Townley handles many other roles as well.
Schweizer keeps the proceedings moving apace, but they lack the sharp edges and split-second timing that this kind of slapstick parody needs to be really effective. The director imparted the requisite style to his cast, and they seem to have gotten into the world of the play, but it's soft and mushy overall. Schweizer, who’s directed both opera and performance art as well as theater for 40 years, should have the wherewithal to get this right, but he seems to have missed the bull’s-eye by several inches.
In another nod to classic silent films, Henley includes a score of original piano music in her performance text for Laugh. Composed and performed live on stage (albeit on the periphery of the action) by Wayne Barker (2012 Tony nomination and 2011 Drama Desk Award for his music for Peter and the Starcatcher), who also acts not so much as Narrator (as he’s credited in the program) than as a living title card announcing the time and settings or little labels for scenes, the music is so reminiscent of the accompaniment for the silents that I thought at first Barker was using existing music. (According to the Washington Post, this gig came out of early readings of the play, presented last August at Vassar College’s New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater with Schweizer already in the director’s chair, and apparently stuck. Assuming there are revivals of Laugh, I can’t imagine Barker himself will play them—except maybe a New York première.) Barker’s playing and discontinuous patter helps keep Laugh flowing and smoothes over the gaps in the sometimes disjointed action.
Andromache Chalfant’s set, a changing but essentially unit environment that evokes the locales—the mine, the Defoliants’ rural home, the porn studio in the middle of nowhere, a train car, and so on—and still lets us imagine a silent-movie set, is open enough to permit plenty of movement, including pratfalls and a couple of stage fights (Joe Isenberg is the fight director and Elena Day is the movement consultant) on the Mead’s smallish stage. (Set pieces are changed in view of the audience by stagehands who behave much like movie-set grips: noisily and unapologetically.) Paired with Michael Lincoln’s lighting, the performance environment is effectively apt. Add the often outrageous costumes of Frank Labovitz, of which Miss Bee Sunshine’s absurd yellow dress and Zes’s three crazy sex-worker outfits were standouts, and the look of Laugh is perhaps the best part of the whole show (with the possible exception of the acting).
The press was decidedly mixed nearly across the board. Nearly all the reviewers praised Henley’s invocation of the old movies and her revival of slapstick, but almost all of them also remarked that Laugh is episodic and disjointed, barely holding together as a play. Headlines and subheads read “Equal parts funny and peculiar” (Washington Post) and “Though the laughs in Studio Theatre’s ‘Laugh’ may be strained at times, the quirky play is pleasant” (Washington Life Magazine). The sentiment was just about universal. The Post’s Pressley, for example, after reporting “zest in the wordplay and some brave over-the-top performances,” laments, “The absurdities don’t always cohere.” Labeling the play “oddball,” Pressley adds, “The fussy throwback stagecraft feels as if it is jostling with Henley’s writing,” and concludes, “It’s intriguing, and yes, there are real laughs. But it all keeps hitting jarring potholes; it’s pretty peculiar.”
In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek, calling Laugh a “throwback” (a word Postman Pressley also used), describes the production as “a Muppety assemblage of outrageous zut alors! accents, awful fake beards, pendulous fake boobs, and cream-pies-in-faces.” Schweizer’s Laugh is “staged and performed with a vigor and precision that frequently gels into a persuasive illusion of effortlessness,” continues Klimek in probably the area’s most positive notice, “and unless you’re an incurable sourpuss you’ll probably have a good time.” (I guess that tells me, huh?) The cast’s “energy never wanes, even when what seems like it would make a delightful 85-minute one-act stretches out to a mildly enervating two hours and 15 minutes.” Chuck Conconi acknowledges in Washington Life Magazine that “without question, ‘Laugh’ is quirky, but in spite of all the pratfall antics, it is pleasant, but the laughs are often strained.” Conconi concludes, “‘Laugh’ is disjointed, sometimes funny, sometimes strained” and that Schweizer’s “direction lacked the split-second timing necessary to take advantage of the play’s madcap demands.”
On Examiner.com, Kyle Osborne labels Laugh “a love letter to pratfalls and props, to double-takes and dreams of Hollywood and striking it rich. And pies in the face.” Praising the performances and some of Schweizer’s and Henley’s bits, however, Osbourne reports, “But these bits of brilliance feel more like vignettes than a cohesive story, which makes it hard to get inside the proceedings.” The cyber reviewer explains that the audience seemed more amused by “the meta tone” (by which I assume he’s referring to the recreation on a live stage of silent-movie scenes and business) and also observes (as did several other reporters) that pianist-composer-narrator Wayne Barker “may have gotten more laughs than anyone else onstage.” Jayne Blanchard opens her review in DC Theatre Scene by stating that playwright Henley “slips on the banana peel trying to recreate the side-splitting in Laugh.” Though she says, “It’s worthwhile to dodge the myriad potholes along P Street to take in Laugh,” the DCTS reviewer goes on to note that the “florid dialogue often sounds like it was composed with a calligraphy pen” and that the play “lurches along episodically” to the extent that it “doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a sendup or a stylistic experiment.” Blanchard sums the experience up by asserting, “Aside from some daffy bits—and you don’t know whether to give credit to Henley or the cast’s demented inventiveness—Laugh is more strange than funny.”
MD Theatre Guide’s Roger Catlin warns that Studio’s première of Laugh is “not always a smooth road to laughter,” opining, “It almost feels like she’s trying anything that works after a while, and in comedy such perceived desperation can dry up the mirth.” After a litany of ideas that don’t quite work, Catlin concludes, “Laugh is good for one or two, even if it strings things a bit too long.” In the first paragraph of his DC Metro Theater Arts review, Robert Michael Oliver asserts that the play “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.” Then he goes on, “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.” Oliver does back off slightly, though, to concede, “Now, none of this is to say that there isn’t a lot to like about Laugh,” naming the design team and the cast as high points, but then he comes back to complain, “What Laugh doesn’t have is the clarity and joy that a farce requires.” The DCMTA review-writer finds that director Schweizer doesn’t pace the performance “quickly enough” but admits that “Laugh is a pleasant enough theatrical experience,” even though “you’ll find no humor-catharsis in” the production.
In the New York-based cyber press, Pamela Roberts writes on Broadway World that “Laugh, like a frontier tumbleweed, is a bit aimless, loosely formed and messy.” Roberts expected “movement and pace to be at the forefront,” she explains, but found “the play is far more rooted in language.” Describing the Studio production as “over-long” for something labeled “slapstick,” it “needs to be trimmed,” Roberts believes. Nonetheless, given Henley’s talents for “heightened language and quirkiness,” the BWW reviewer acknowledges, “Laugh has some fine moments.” On Talkin’ Broadway, Susan Berlin writes that Laugh “is a valentine to early cinema” that includes Henley’s “familiar way of finding humor in the outrageous” that Studio premières “with a sincere heart.” Berlin expressly praised the “solidly entertaining and heartfelt performances,” especially of Cespedes and Garnick.
I probably shouldn’t make predictions (I’m usually not good at them), but I’ll dare to say that if Laugh makes a move to New York off of this début, it won’t fare well. One reason Henley (and others) sometimes première their new plays in small, out-of-the-limelight theaters (and that’s not a comment on their quality) is that it’s safer than a New York City preem (or even a Chicago, San Francisco, New Haven, or Cambridge opening) because, first, it’s less heavily scrutinized and, second, the press is kinder (that’s particularly true in comparison to New York City). You can see that the Capital area reviewers weren’t well-disposed to Laugh; if you know the New York scene, you can imagine how our theater desks will cover the play. (Personally, I can’t see why any major theater in New York would want to produce Laugh as it now stands. My companions at Studio that Sunday afternoon asked the Big Question directly: why did David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, choose to put Laugh up at his troupe? Did he read it and say, ‘I really have to do this play,’ they wondered. Despite that response, however, he did, and some AD in the Big Apple might make the same decision—because it’s a Beth Henley script, a new play, an actors’ play, or any other nonce rationale.) Should any theater present Henley’s play, without substantial rewrites and—sorry, Schweizer—a change of director, it’ll get lambasted in the reviews and disappoint audiences and subscribers in droves. (It may be revealing that several Studio spectators left at intermission and I heard others contemplating that choice.) The author said she needed to write the play essentially to decompress from her previous effort. Well, now she has. I hope it worked for her, because I don’t think it’ll have much of a stage life after its Washington run. If I were a betting man . . . .