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Beth Henley found success early: She was not yet 30 when her second play, Crimes of the Heart, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981. Throughout the ‘80s she worked steadily as a playwright and screenwriter, frequently mining quirky humor from Southern women’s struggles to reconcile the competing demands of romantic and familial love, or to break out of their circumscribed roles. Movie-star-in-the-making Holly Hunter starred in seven of Henley’s plays as well as the 1989 film version of Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest. Henley also worked with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and her then-boyfriend Stephen Tobolowsky—Ned Ryerson himself!—on the script for Byrne’s 1986 cult movie True Stories.
In the ‘90s and beyond, she remained prolific. But as her stage work grew more outré in form and content, audiences and critical approbation both became more elusive. When her caustic noir-comedy The Jacksonian—her first play in six years—became a hit in 2013, longtime observers hailed it as her “comeback.”
So what, then, is Laugh, her follow-up making its world premiere at the Studio Theatre? Call it a throwback. It resembles The Jacksonian to roughly the same extent it evokes Crimes of the Heart, which is to say: Not at all. Set in the 1920s and inspired by silent film comedies, right down to Wayne Barker’s live piano score and title-card style narration, Laugh—an imperative, not a noun—is a Muppety assemblage of outrageous zut alors! accents, awful fake beards, pendulous fake boobs, and cream-pies-in-faces.
There’s a scheming dowager named Octobra Defoliant (the always game Emily K. Townley). An enterprising smut merchant (the barrel-chested, opera-voiced, generally delightful Jacob Ming-Trent) orders his underling to “Bring on the pornographic Valentine candidates for my perusal!” In intention and in effect, it is decidedly and unreservedly silly. Beth Henley wrote this?
You probably already know if you’re at all susceptible to this key of zany madcap tomfoolery. This is the kind of show wherein just digging lustily into what sounds like an unlikely syllable can land like a brilliant joke. It’s staged and performed with a vigor and precision that frequently gels into a persuasive illusion of effortlessness, and unless you’re an incurable sourpuss you’ll probably have a good time.
Save for our two winsome leads—Helen Cespedes as the resourceful but credulous Mabel and Creed Garnick as the foppish, squeamish Roscoe—the company of six all play multiple roles, shuckin’ hard for our yuks. Their energy never wanes, even when what seems like it would make a delightful 85-minute one-act stretches out to a mildly enervating two hours and 15 minutes. Zany is tough to sustain-y.
A loose plot chronicles Roscoe’s attempt to woo rube Mabel for her gold rush inheritance money. When he abandons her in the company of that would-be pornographer, she makes her way to Hollywood to seek her fortune in the pictures, leaving a penitent Roscoe to try to win her back. But as with the films on which it’s modeled, you could enter at any time without losing much.
Elena Day is credited as the show’s “movement consultant,” and she is perhaps responsible for the athleticism of its slapstick-iest moments, like when Garnick’s mishandling of a butterfly net results in a near-complete somersault. It’s not his funnybone that breaks if he gets that move wrong. Goofing off this at this level is hard work.