SKITS AND PIECES

If Forrest Gump's mother was right ("Life is like a box of . . ."), then Arizona Comedy Theatre Company's Coming Attractions is like a Whitman's Sampler with all the tops pushed in so we know what we're going to get.

Four dedicated performers have put themselves on display with an endearing Mickey-and-Judy eagerness to put on a show. If the evening is uneven, it is because this plate of appetizers features a half-dozen writers on the half-shell, with the purpose of arousing an audience's appetite for more. If you think these metaphors are mixed, you can imagine the mixed signals coming from an evening of comic tidbits penned by Eric Bogosian, Christopher Durang, Charles Ludlam and David Mamet! No two of this quartet could agree on anything about theatre, comedy or life, so it is inevitable that the evening remains a smorgasbord.

Two other writers previously unknown to me, Larry Larson and Levi Lee, also provided material for the 14 skits that make up the intended laugh fest.

So, is it funny? Well, some of it is. Forgettable are Mamet's piece, The Dog, and most of the Bogosian excerpts from Drinking in America and Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll.

But the Ludlam pieces and, particularly, the scenes by Durang managed to get a smile or two, even from a small audience that virtually outnumbered the cast.

Three of the performers have evident comic talent. Charles Farris is a very large man who resembles Penn Jillette and who uses a droll deadpan to rib the audience into sharing his delight with the material. His attempts at ventriloquism may fall short of Edgar Bergen's, but he is amusing, nonetheless, in Ludlam's The Ventriloquist's Wife as a husband who has spent $500 to buy a dummy. He names it "Walter Ego," much to his wife's dismay.

In Durang's Naomi and the Living Room, Farris and Susie Schuld visit his mother, a bona fide basket case. As she explains to her daughter-in-law, "The living room is where we live, and the kitchen is where we collect kitsch." When he reappears in a simple little shift, we discover the son may be as kinky as the mother. Farris is one of those people who looks so ridiculous in a dress that he need do little to underline the laughter.

G.J. Clayburn is also adept at slipping a sly insight into a believable performance, and he and Schuld perform in the evening's most substantial piece, the restaurant meeting from Durang's Beyond Therapy. The scene dramatizes a blind date that results from a personal ad in the newspaper. It turns into a nightmare from the beginning when, searching for a compliment, he blurts out, "You have nice breasts." The performers get the fullest and most honest laughs of the night in this ten-minute sketch.

Director Claude File has staged the proceedings with an efficient style that is spare and elegant. The new company promises to follow up this shotgun sample of talent with full mountings next season of Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Larry Larson and Levi Lee's Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening With the Illuminati and Preston Jones' Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander.

It is difficult to assess from the present sampling whether the company is up to such an ambitious schedule, but God knows we could use a few more laughs out here. They'd be welcome watering holes in this cultural desert.

 
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