In Laughing Stock (on the Main Stage at the Civic through Feb. 2), playwright Charles Morey has fashioned a backstage farce -- with sentimental, we-love-theater scenes appended -- that's receiving a very strong production from director Troy Nickerson's cast and crew. With several exceptional performances, recognizable character types, overt appeals to doing what we love most, technical accomplishment -- and a parody of Dracula that's among the funniest stage-farce sequences I've ever seen -- Nickerson has assembled a top-notch show.
A summer stock theater in New Hampshire gathers its actors (varied in commitment and talent level) to put on -- in repertory, one night after another -- a farce, a horror fantasy and a classic tragedy. The mix of genres and personalities leads to fiascoes both onstage, behind the scenes and even during rehearsals. We witness rehearsals for both Dracula and Charley's Aunt along with performance-snippets of Dracula and Hamlet. The artistic director is idealistic; the business manager pinches pennies. The leading man is in hot pursuit of the ing & eacute;nue, who's totally starting to understand this whole acting process, you know? Other varieties of actor on display include the jaded, the doddering, the inept and the drunken.
While the script of Laughing Stock gets too insider-y with all its Ibsen jokes and pushes the magic-of-theater angle too hard, it will still appeal to anyone who's ever pursued any avocation out of love (and not love of profit). Even better, in a solid all-around cast, several standout performances add special luster to this show. As Mary the bimbette, Tanya Barton has to be hubba-hubba eye candy and succeeds. Mary wants to be taken seriously as an actress even if her idea of an audition involves doing a lap dance; without making the easy dumb-blonde choices, Barton oozes sex appeal in scenes with Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, her leading man. He manages to find multiple motivations in his character and plays them all: the self-consumed artiste; the hang-loose horndog; the scenery-chewing ham. Playing Dracula, he wants to bring his character to life, even if he is one of the Undead.
Paul Villabrille plays a reluctant young actor as his usual schlub, though there's some high jinks with a moving prop (a four-poster bed) that has Villabrille darting around to save his own neck -- and it's a masterpiece of physical comedy. Susan Hardie pipes up with her stage manager's sarcastic remarks, then takes solace from a bottle of gin until she finds her character arc in coming back around to what made her love theater in the first place.
As has been the case so often in his years of service to the Civic, scenic and lighting designer and technical director Peter Hardie deserves great credit. Imagine trying to get dozens of fast-paced lighting and sound cues deliberately wrong. There were onstage miscues involving flowing capes, flying bats, moving beds and sleeping stagehands that had me laughing so hard I was crying -- and I wasn't alone.
Audiences love onstage chaos, with plenty of people running around making fools of themselves, and Laughing Stock obliges. They also like being involved in the putting-together of a scene, too -- so when the elaborate "tea gag" from Charley's Aunt is pulled off flawlessly, audience members responded with delighted clapping, as if they'd actually been part of the rehearsal themselves.
Some portions of the evening, however, are slower and flatter. As the artistic director, Thomas Heppler has some cell-phone conversations with the theater's patroness that don't underline or time the jokes well. As the "executive managing administrative director," Gavin Smith gets saddled with an overextended, unfunny bit about pencils; Smith does what he can, but the problem is mostly the playwright's. And for a character who's eventually referred to as "terminally embittered," David Gigler doesn't seem nearly bitter enough in an extended speech about just how tough it is to get an acting job on Broadway -- or, for that matter, anywhere. Finally, all those inserted we-sure-love-theater scenes just seem calculated, especially when they pile up near the evening's end.
Two and three-quarter hours may be simply too long for comedy. Laughing Stock takes too long to achieve its setup, but the Act Two payoff -- the everything-goes-wrong Dracula parody -- is worth buying a ticket for all by itself.