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Lemme set the scene: Soon after arriving on Mount Olympus, mortal Graleo (John Geoffrion) finds his efforts to convince the goddess Peace (Anastasia Wilson) to return to Earth temporarily stymied. Turns out Peace has been imprisoned by War himself (an even-more-stentorian-than-usual Brian Crane, in the John Rhys-Davies/Brian Blessed role). What’s more, the other gods have ditched Olympus, ceding run of the place to War and his cronies, leaving only the capricious Hermes (Sara Barker) behind to act as gofer. When War takes off to a strip club with his buddies, the emotionally needy Hermes, feeling slighted, turns to the mortal for comfort. Graleo, reluctantly, attempts to soothe her:
“Tell me what you want, what you really really want,” he says.
That joke doesn’t connect to anything else in D.C. playwright Callie Kimball’s modern reimagining of Aristophanes’ comedy Peace at WSC, and it zips by, earning a douche-laugh or two in the process. You know the douche-laugh: It’s that short, loud grunt—a hngt! sound—that escapes the guy two rows behind you immediately following an onstage reference to some obscure, or near-obscure, nugget of popular or literary culture. And I mean immediately following, because the whole point of the douche-laugh is not to express amusement but to communicate to you and your fellow audience members: “I recognize that reference, and what’s more I recognized it before all y’all!” At a Stoppard play, the douche-laugh says, “I got that joke in Latin!” In the above instance, it says, “I am passingly familiar with the lyrical output of the Spice Girls!” Also, simultaneously: “First!”
I mention the douche-laugh because Callie Kimball’s clever, allusive, freewheeling Peace seems to have been engineered to elicit precisely this species of response from audiences. Consider yourself warned. There are bigger, meatier laughs throughout the evening; Simone Zvi, playing the goddess Harvest as some kind of voracious, squealing My Super Sweet Sixteen escapee, provides more than a few. But it’s Kimball’s wit that director Alexander Strain seems to have keyed into, which is why, say, the scene in which the cast attempts to explain to Peace just what Earth has been like without her these past 15 years works so nimbly and so well.
But cleverness can only add flavor, not provide substance, and even that great scene goes on too long, with too little variation. There’s also a disjointed quality to the evening that Strain, oddly enough, seems to encourage. You’ll pick up on a certain archness of tone, which makes the script’s disquisitions on the nature of War feel as if they belong to one production, and then you’ll zero in on the high-comic moments, which feel like they belong to quite another. And I’m still trying to puzzle out just what, exactly, Kimball is up to by tweaking her narrative structure after intermission in the specific way she does. It’s a big deal that should connect to something and should—dare I say—even mean something, but it plays like another throwaway Spice Girls gag, still another random bit of cleverness in a show that’s got plenty already. So fair enough, I’ll play along: Hngt.