Dallas — Is it slam-bang theater? Is it melodrama? Is it slapstick gone south? Sort of. It’s Beth Henley’s Laugh, a spoof of Hollywood 1920s silent movies, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt at Theatre Three in its regional premiere.
Henley, an alumni of Southern Methodist University and Theatre Three’s stage, is best known for her 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart and for a series of later plays revealing the warm hearts appealing nuttiness of her southern heroines. Henley’s bizarre sense of humor surfaces in Laugh, which premiered two years ago at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the essential wit and playfulness of the earlier plays is smothered here, not by two or three, but by a veritable throng of odd characters, all constantly changing costumes and scenes as they become other weird people chasing each other around the woods and hick towns of “the far west.”
The show starts with a melodramatic bang, as young Mabel (a lithe and spirited Debbie Crawford) picks up the pieces after her daddy blows himself up discovering a gold mine. She falls into the clutches of a twice-removed aunt who bullies her dim-witted ward Roscoe (a goofily eager Magdiel Carmona) to propose marriage, thus giving Auntie Awful all the bucks. Roscoe and Mabel escape to the movies, where stars like Mary Pickford ham it up on the silver screen (hung in one corner of the arena stage in Schmidt's set design). Their silent sighs are accompanied by a live pianist (Isaac Leaverton) trilling romantic or pounding away on chase scenes. Ushers become Keystone Cops or Anthony and Cleopatra as the unwilling couple sit side-by-side, hands almost touching.
All sorts of other stuff start happening, most of it for no particular reason other than to maybe get a laugh. Some of the bits are funny, and the five actors playing at least two dozen roles have their moments, between slamming cream pies at each other, eating mud or squashing insects.
Ashley Wood is more psychotic than funny as a photographer seeking his fortune as king of Valentine porn, goose-stepping in a jungle hat through the west, seeking a woman “to make men salivate pools and pools of glistening drool.” Instead, he encounters Bradley Campbell in the show’s funniest burlesque turn as a series of plus-size would-be porn queens. In long johns and a granny wig, his flesh falling out of a tight bodice, Campbell twirls a red feathered boa and struts his geriatric drag with style: “I do it real slow,” he says. That’s the high moment.
Star-struck Mabel stumbles into a treacherous alliance, but finds her way to Hollywood after a long first act, and years pass at intermission. When we return, the miner’s daughter has improbably become a platinum blonde star with a Hungarian accent and a clichéd back-story. Crawford does cut a lovely svelte figure in her satin gown. Roscoe also resurfaces, although we’ve mostly lost interest in that thin thread of a romance. Before all the pratfalls and mustache twirling is done, more strange characters appear on the scene, including a plump chihuahua (tiny Mercedes, credited with 30 Dallas productions) in a maid’s outfit.
Schmidt, who launches his tenure as artistic director of Theatre Three with this production, does everything he can to keep this busy, disjointed play from falling into tedium (this show was picked before Schmidt’s new appointment, but he was assigned to direct it when the season was announced). Actors run up and down isles and include front row patrons in their talky scenes. Some audience members seem amused, others flustered. On opening night, one whole section of eager audience members laughed loudly throughout, even when a character simply stepped up to one of the mikes. None of this enthusiastic crew left at intermission.
The actors give it their all, and do a swift job helping each other with costume changes. They even pantomime each other’s voices credibly in a few scenes, and adroitly move the big circular prop around the stage to become a goldmine, movie seats or a rolling train. If only they had a script with more real comic verve and less desperate joke-making, we’d all have more fun.