If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Ivoryton Playhouse Premieres “Comedy Is Hard”
The sit-com-on-stage is alive and well in “Comedy Is Hard”, the new play by Mike Reiss now in a world premiere production at Ivoryton Playhouse. With “Ether Dome”, the drama which served as Hartford Stage’s ill-advised season-opener last week, it suddenly appears that this early fall theatre season is not going to be pretty.
The anticipation for “Comedy Is Hard” stemmed from the track record of Mr. Reiss whose 25-year association as writer for “The Simpsons” plus his well-received play from last season, “I’m Connecticut”, led one to high expectations for this new work. But any single 30-minute episode of “The Simpsons” has more wit, originality and satiric bite than the entire running time of “Comedy Is Hard” which clocks in at a seemingly endless 130 minutes in Ivoryton. With TV veterans Joyce DeWitt and Micky Dolenz playing a pair of celebrity senior citizens, “Comedy Is Hard” would be right at home as one of Fox Television’s more mediocre sit-coms.
Set mostly in an assisted living facility for entertainers, “Comedy Is Hard” introduces Kay (Dewitt), an embittered theatre diva who is now confined to a wheelchair and Lou (Dolenz,) a stand-up comedian from the borsht-belt who is recovering from a slight stroke. They are clearly opposites but, as dictates in plays of this sort, they hit it off right away. Kay, for some reason, finds Lou hilarious even though the majority of his jokes are at least as old as the Ivoryton Playhouse. There are some minor conflicts tossed in – Lou needs to reconcile with his resentful son, Kay needs to embrace life and laugh – and the attempt to deal, at least briefly, with the torments and indignity of old age. But this isn’t “The Gin Game”. Reiss seems far more interested in using up every one-liner that he’s kept in his joke trunk for, apparently, the last 30 years.
These jokes all range from the familiar to the obvious. Bodily function and old age gags are mixed freely with such easy targets as politicians, Oprah and New Jersey. The lead actors are certainly game players and have some fine individual moments even as you realize they are both basically miscast. Dolenz’s role recalls a Don Rickles or Freddie Roman type, but the actor’s persona is far too blue collar to suggest any kind of Jewish sensibility. Dewitt, who still looks terrific, fares a little better with her wonderfully sultry voice, but she is saddled with a stereotyped role and an unflattering white wig when a character of her vintage (and vanity) would still be coloring her hair.
Neither actor was particularly comfortable with lines on opening night nor do they share much chemistry, but under the circumstances, who can blame them? There is an extended section of Becket’s “Waiting for Godot” performed in the play’s second act that sputters to a silly conclusion along with a fantasy dance sequence between the stars that goes nowhere and seems inserted for no real purpose other than to give Dewitt a snazzy costume change.
The supporting cast at Ivoryton is embarrassing and amateurish enough to not be identified here. Director Jacqueline Hubbard’s languid pacing is another major problem allowing pauses worthy of Pinter and excesses by actors who have little to no comic timing. Daniel Nischan’s scenic design (it also includes a Manhattan park) is attractive but proves cumbersome and overly complicated for scene-changes. Gaylen Ferstand’s various projections distract more than enhance the proceedings. There is no doubt that producing a good, smart, contemporary comedy is hard. The bitter proof of this fact is currently on stage in Ivoryton.
“Comedy Is Hard” continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 12, 2014. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.76773181 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.