About two thirds of the way into Christopher Durang's 1987 comedy Laughing Wild, the Infant of Prague appears. He comes not as a miraculous apparition or an ornate symbol of retribution, but as a guest on a daytime talk show. While He is grilled by a woman who may or may not be Sally Jessy Raphael, the audience responds--or so the playwright seems to intend--by "laughing wild amid severest woe," to quote a line that Durang has lifted from Samuel Beckett.
This is the point at which Durang's demented comedy usually succeeds or fails, where the playwright shifts gears from performed essay to absurdist fantasy, and where mediocre productions usually fall apart. This transition isn't meant to signal a free-for-all onstage, and in St. George Productions' current version, director Betty St. George knows that and displays wise restraint in the ensuing scenes.
This quirky two-act is difficult to get past the footlights; its rambling monologues, frenetic blackouts and delightfully one-dimensional characters require a couple of talented actors and a director who understands the author's eccentric dialogue.
St. George Productions' presentation has both. The director has created a lucid translation of this demanding piece of theatre, and has cast actors who--for the most part--capture the lunacy of Durang's writing.
St. George's eponymous playhouse, which opened earlier this year, has thus far presented shows that benefit from long rehearsal periods (ten to 12 weeks instead of the usual four or five) and solid acting by seasoned players. Most of the shows have been directed by St. George, who--judging from her last couple of productions--is fond of two-character plays that are heavy on monologue.
Laughing Wild is essentially a pair of rants and a handful of short scenes that celebrate neuroses and a long list of life's grievances. The play begins with a woman racing onto the stage, which becomes a pulpit from which she spouts Durang's favorite themes: the stresses of big-city living, the impracticality of religious belief and the search for life's true meaning. She is then replaced by a man who addresses us with his resentment for everything the woman didn't already cover. By the time the Infant of Prague takes the stage, we've visited all that's wrong with the world and have, if the production is sturdy, laughed ourselves sick.
The show was well-received in its original New York production, with Durang and E. Katherine Kerr in the leads, and in a subsequent Los Angeles production in which Jean Smart played The Woman. That role is the centerpiece of the play, the pivot on which this randy comedy turns. As portrayed by Patti D. Suarez in the Phoenix production, she's insane but quite articulate, manically spouting extreme opinions and letting the audience judge from her words just how crazy she is. Had she played a stereotype crazy, Suarez's antics would have become the focus of her performance, and Durang's delicious dialogue would have been lost.
Michael Pallansch, as The Man, does not fare as well. His recitation of silly affirmations is appropriately deadpan, but his performance is often too grave for a man who's attempting a more positive outlook on life. And, while Durang has written a flat, one-dimensional character who feels disconnected from life, Pallansch attempts to bring depth to a man who is really no more than a list of opinions.
The actor redeems himself as the Infant of Prague. Hunched down inside a hugely flouncy costume, Pallansch plays the cherubic icon as an animated toaster cover, giggling and reciting Bible verse in a performance that had the audience at the matinee I attended howling.
The production's main flaw is one from which any show at this theatre would suffer: the unfortunate location of its staging. St. George Productions is housed in a strip mall, and shoppers can be seen wandering past the theatre's wide windows, which is distracting. But much of the time our attention is riveted on the stage, thanks to St. George's animated direction. She's also made some sensitive changes to the original script, updating its late-Eighties references.
Even if Laughing Wild weren't the only game in town (aside from a production of Vanities at Theater Works over on the west side, local stages are bare), it would still be worth the trip up Central Avenue to see this shrewd, funny commentary on life. It provides a pleasant segue from summer stock to the beginning of the fall theatre season.
Laughing Wild continues through Saturday, September 7, at St. George Theatre Downstairs, 4700 North Central, Suite 112.
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