A bare-bones synopsis of Christopher Durang's 1987 comedy Laughing Wild would read like a magic-realist love affair in which the protagonists meet cute: A man and a woman share a brief encounter in the aisle of a Manhattan grocery store. The woman relays her version of the meeting in a monologue to the audience; the man similarly tells his side of the story. Ultimately, the characters find each other again by showing up in the other person's dreams. Can't you just sniff the possibilities for romance in the air?
Sorry, folks. Durang, an uncompromising satirist who has pilloried the Catholic Church (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You), the nuclear family (The Marriage of Bette and Boo), and psychoanalysis (Beyond Therapy) since his auspicious play-writing debut in the Seventies, takes us on a decidedly unsentimental roller-coaster ride in Laughing Wild.
Enjoying a high-octane production at Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood, with manic comic performances by Angela Thomas and Patrick Manley, this pas de deux features a nameless woman who conks a nameless man over the head because he's blocking her way to the cans of tuna in the supermarket. Durang gets an amazing amount of mileage out of this ludicrous situation; he spins the characters' narrations of the incident into elaborate harangues against most things urban and contemporary, including taxi drivers, waiting in line, new-age dogma, nuclear waste, and AIDS. As the rage-fueled yet corrosively funny invectives grow increasingly surreal, the pair do indeed invade each other's dreams and the monologues turn into zany exchanges. In one dream the woman murders Sally Jesse Raphael and takes over as host of that talk show; her guest is a man dressed in papal-like garb as the Infant of Prague. In another the man and woman slice open baked potatoes and find their fathers nesting inside.
The nervous, often paranoid ravings lend new meaning to the term monologue. What Durang has really written are shrewdly elliptical stream-of-consciousness rants that draw on the seemingly bottomless depths of his characters' anxieties. These rants move swiftly from subject to image to allusion in wonderfully incongruous leaps, much like the way our minds work when in neurotic overdrive. Unfortunately the writing in places proves to be long-winded, repetitive, and irritating. Had Durang approached the script with an editor's pen as rapier-sharp as his wit, the play might have been tighter. As written, however, the show takes us on a wacky but somewhat purposeless journey that in the long run does not travel much beyond its characters' craziness.
In his debut as a director, Carbonell Award-nominated actor Todd Allen Durkin displays solid theatrical instincts, the first of which is a redesign of Durang's structure for Laughing Wild. Originally the show consisted of one long act broken up into three sections, each of which contains separate scenes. The woman's monologue is the first section; the man's monologue follows; the scenes in which they interact conclude the play. Durkin shakes things up by dividing the script into two acts -- splicing the two monologues together to create Act One. Both characters appear on-stage at the same time, with one frozen in place while the other performs, and vice versa. The seamless cutting and pasting breaks up the monotony of the potentially tiresome diatribes; unless you knew otherwise you would never suspect that Durang had not conceived it this way himself.
Durkin also elicits frenetic performances from Thomas and Manley that are sustained throughout the course of the evening -- no mean feat in a town where some productions are so torpidly paced you could drive a truck through the pauses. And he doesn't hesitate to lead his actors down disturbingly dark paths to explore the solitary and frightened parts of their characters' personalities. Yet his direction has one fatal flaw: He doesn't modulate the tone of the evening enough.
Durang has fashioned rabid material for overwrought characters, and Durkin treats this material in the most obvious way: He opens the show at a fevered pitch and, from that intense outset, encourages his actors to whip themselves into a froth clear to the end of the play. If he had taken the histrionics down a notch and allowed the performances to simmer, Durkin would have enabled Thomas and Manley to earn their nervous breakdowns. He also would have let us feel at least some emotional connection to these looney-tune folks. Although dazzled by Thomas's and Manley's comedic abilities throughout, we feel assaulted by the material and the acting before the show is even half over.
Still, Thomas and Manley do deliver two of the most relentlessly nutty comic turns in recent memory. Wearing an oversize sweater, a screaming multicolor dress, and sneakers, Thomas twists herself inside out to depict a seriously unhinged New Yorker who, by her own admission, has done her share of stints at a psychiatric hospital. Pathetic and conniving, lonely and alienating, hilarious and terrifying, Thomas's characterization provokes sympathy one moment and nervous laughter the next. Just when you think the woman cannot possibly unravel any more, the actress verbally and physically simulates a car alarm. This astonishing moment alone makes the show worth attending.
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With equally obsessive fervor, Manley plays an anal retentive, sexually confused editor attempting to transform his miserable existence through positive-thinking affirmations. Watch how Manley circles his arms faster and faster while compulsively repeating those affirmations throughout the night. And relish the matter-of-fact way he reacts to finding his father in a baked potato (an outlandish image if there ever was one): "I put butter on him," the man tells us with delight, "and ate him."
Darkly comic writing and killer performances compensate for the elements that don't fly in Durang's play and Durkin's direction. For the first time out of the gate in this role, however, Durkin earns points for confidently handling both actors and unconventional humor. Next time around, by working in a more subtle manner, Durkin may just cross the line from solid to inspired direction.
Written by Christopher Durang; directed by Todd Allen Durkin; with Angela Thomas and Patrick Manley. Through December 15. For information call 954-925-8123 or see "Calendar Listings.