On the last night it played Tucson, The First Hundred Years by Arizona Theatre Company drew more than an appreciative crowd. As the audience filed out, local paramedics filed in, reportedly to remove an ailing patron who'd collapsed during the evening's performance.
He certainly hadn't laughed himself sick. This one-act comedy, written and performed by former circus clown Geoff Hoyle, spends more time looking for laughs than obtaining them. The trouble is that this collection of vintage sight gags wants to be more than the sum of its parts. Hoyle isn't content to reprise hoary jokes; he wants us to know that they mean something. It's not enough to think that a rubber chicken is funny; we have to know why it's funny.
Hoyle's script works itself into a lather telling the story of Jack Proust, a fictional music-hall comic and silent-film actor who's lately been squatting in an abandoned theater, surrounded by all his old props and set pieces. The playhouse is slated for demolition, and in the hours before the wrecking ball arrives, Proust befriends a teenage girl who's been watching him from the shadows. He proceeds to tell the girl his story, re-creating many of the gags he performed in vaudeville and showing her clips from his early films. These routines make up most of the program, which wants us to witness the joys of physical comedy in its waning hours.
The First Hundred Years, which opens Thursday, May 4, in Phoenix, works better in concept than in execution. The slender script amounts to little more than introductions to Proust's various acrobatics. The show's other character, referred to only as "The Kid" in the program, is never developed; she's there merely to demand that Proust "do another one" and to point out occasionally that the building he lives in is about to be razed. The story has no resolution and provides no explanation of why The Kid runs off with Proust's prized possessions. Is she planning to continue the tradition of old-time comic clowning? Is she punishing the old clown for boring her for more than an hour? The unusually quiet audience didn't seem to know, or to care.
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Jack Proust would say that our boredom with The First Hundred Years supports the very message that Hoyle means to convey: that we've been so corrupted by big, shiny, megabucks entertainment that we're no longer able to enjoy simple physical comedy. But there's no irony in our response: We can, in fact, still find humor in a good gag -- so long as it's funny. While several of Proust's gags are amusing, there isn't one of them we haven't seen a dozen times before.
The only irony here is that while Hoyle's script bemoans the loss of simpler entertainment and disdains the Disneyification of Broadway, the show's literally explosive finale owes more to the pyrotechnic spectacle of Miss Saigon or Phantom of the Opera than it does the old-time fun that Hoyle means to celebrate.
Hoyle is an affable clown. His rubber-faced responses and nimble timing are superb. They're also the reason for the program, which is mostly a showcase for its author's peculiar talents. (Hoyle has clowned with, among others, Cirque du Soleil and Circus Flora.) There's no room in Proust's spotlight for The Kid, listlessly portrayed here by Rosalie Ward. Ward's performance isn't assisted by director Tony Taccone, who keeps the girl's back to us throughout most of the show.
In the end, The First Hundred Years is nothing more than a pleasant pastiche of sight gags, a bagful of tricks borrowed from various sources and sewn together with languid laugh lines. The show's failing is not its comic clowning but its overambitious take on same. The story's unintentional punch line is simple and none too amusing: Once we're asked to respect a rubber chicken, it isn't funny anymore.