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A&E: Laughing in the new arts year

January 14, 2008

If you've seen stage farces under less-than-optimal conditions, you know how difficult they can be to pull off. Off-color jokes slide into offensiveness. Characters slip into stereotypes. And the harder the push for laughs, the more desperate it all seems.

Because in farce, it's not about unique characters, it's not about surprising plots and it most certainly isn't about any sort of insight into human behavior. It's about creating a mechanism that makes an audience laugh until its collective sides hurt.

If that doesn't happen, the show fails. But when it works-in a solid stage farce handled by savvy pros-no movie or TV show produces this kind of relentless, infectious laughter.

All of which is to say that Beef & Boards' production of the door-slamming Brit hit "Run for Your Wife" doesn't just succeed, it transcends.

The plot? A deceptive British cabbie has two wives living less than five minutes apart. The fragile house(s) of cards begin to fall, though, when his delicate time-sharing schedule is thrown off by an attempt at heroism. Any of it could be resolved, of course, if the cabbie opted at any point to tell the truth, but where would the fun be in that? We're here to watch a guy (B&B everyman stalwart Eddie Curry) get enmeshed deeper and deeper into a web of lies-in this case, complicated by an upstairs neighbor (the hilariously long-suffering Jeff Stockberger) with some creative untruths of his own.

Credit should go not only to writer Ray Cooney but also to director J.R. Stuart for keeping things as crystal clear for the audience as they are muddy for the show's characters.

There are big laughs, too, sprinkled into "End Days," Deborah Zoe Laufer's new play at the Phoenix Theatre.

The story centers on a 16-year-old Jewish girl whose father hasn't been able to leave the house since surviving 9/11 and whose mother not only has, literally, found Jesus but also believes the rapture is coming in a matter of days.

As the mother, Martha Jacobs knows that the ultimate power of the piece has to do with the mother's sincerity, not her delusion. The fact that she believes so strongly makes what could be a comical battle of family vs. eternal salvation into something akin to Sophie's choice. Bill Simmons is more deliberate as the father-moving and eminently likable-but giving a performance not quite modulated to the small Phoenix basement theater. Phebe Taylor, as the girl, Matthew Roland as both Jesus and Stephen Hawking (Yes, that Stephen Hawking), and Matthew Van Oss as a pivotal neighbor round out a winning ensemble.

An added pleasure: Since "End Days" is part of a rolling premiere-with individual productions in three different regional theaters-the Phoenix audience is in a unique position to influence a work that's still in development.

So I'll do my part in hopes of helping the playwright develop this engaging, worthy piece even further. Laufer clearly is a playwright to watch-and any playwright worth his or her salt appreciates audience comments-whether or not those comments are ultimately ignored, incorporated or lead to totally unexpected epiphanies.

My short list of questions:

What's gained by Jesus talking?

Neighbor Nelson's Elvis suit may get some laughs, but it works against the reality of the piece. And the injuries he suffers from bullies feel like sitcom contrivances. Can the piece work without the suit? Or, at least with just the belt buckle and cape?

What's lost if you ditch the coffee scene? Without it, I think we'd still feel as strongly about Sylvia, the mother. And it would cut a needed five minutes or so from the first act.

Can you get me a pair of tickets to the off-Broadway premiere (which I'm convinced will come some day)?

It would be foolish to go to a dance performance with the same expectations one takes to a comedy club. But when Dance Kaleidoscope stages a show called "Funny Feet: a comedy" and the marketing efforts push funny, funny, funny, one can't help but expect, well, funny.

That expectation is met in the first third, in the delightful "Merry Mozart." The Indianapolis premiere is choreographer David Hochoy at his whimsical best, guiding his dancers toward bright, specific, athletic moves often presented with mockgraceless grace. If the piece can use a stronger, bigger climax, so be it. What comes before deserves a spot in the DK repertoire. Audiences should be laughing at this one for years to come.

Such audience audibles, though, are difficult to sustain. A revival of 1999's "G&S.com(A Gilbert & Sullivan Comedy)" didn't gel in the same way. More sitcom humor is attempted here, but the result feels like a talented comic that wants, too badly, to please.

By the final piece, audience expectations seemed to align with reality. Set to a score that sounds as if Bach had written music for Disney World's Main Street Electrical Parade, "In the Moog" (another Hochoy world premiere) settled into a series of narrative-free sequences that pushed for smiles more than guffaws. Long after the girl-carrying-boy gags had overstayed their welcome, it's the seemly artistry of the dancers that proved most worthy of applause.

Mixed into the program was a redo of Hochoy's 2002 "Hush," soloed by DK newcomer Brittany Edwards. This interlude proved a charming-if-somewhatslight coming-out party for the former Butler University dancer, whose spirited persona and accomplished moves look to be a terrific addition to the company.
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