Comedy, as the woman points out to the man fiddling with her knickers in Dead Funny, is often about the Concealment of Knowledge Later Revealed. How symmetrically right she is. That the two of them, both members of a club devoted to smutty British comics like Benny Hill, are about to be discovered in their flagrante position by a third party spending the evening with them and their spouseswell, that more or less underscores the point, doesn’t it?
Terry Johnson’s acid domestic dramedy, wrapping up the season at Woolly Mammoth, is interested in pointing out and sending up the various smokescreenshobbies, social obligations, workwe use to avoid talking about more difficult things like relationships. On the page, it’s a clever tweak of the old sex-farce tradition, a serious-minded, ambitious, and mostly successful stab at using subjects as seemingly unrelated as music-hall comedy and marital dysfunction to throw a little light on each other. In practice, at least at Woolly, it feels a little strained.
At its broken heart are a middle-class, middlebrow English couple whose marriage has, to put it mildly, reached a crisis point. Richard (Bruce Nelson), an obstetrician with intimacy problems, is fattening up and pushing 40; his schoolteacher wife Eleanor (Naomi Jacobson), thinner but three years older, is nakedly anxious for a babyto validate her womanliness? To cement their increasingly shaky marriage? The fact that she and Richard have stopped having sexpretty much stopped touching, even, except during the tense, regimented intervals and in the awkwardly formal fashion prescribed by their couples therapistis a hurdle, but Eleanor is gamely, grimly determined to overcome. Her increasingly desperate efforts at connecting with Richard, and his equally frantic barrier-building, are the evening’s sport.
On the barren domestic playing field with them are another team, Nick (Brian McMonagle) and Lisa (Rhea Seehorn), and one unwilling referee, Brian (Nick Olcott), all gathered in the pathetically hopeful coziness of Eleanor’s exceedingly floral living room for a Dead Funny Society conclave called to mourn Benny Hill’s untimely death. If Nick and Lisa have apparently been more successful on the reproductive front, they’re not necessarily a model of marital accord; his air of barely throttled rage and her scattered, brittle persona belie tensions that’ll be explainedthough not necessarily resolvedby evening’s end. As for Brian, whose bachelorhood is explained by a not particularly surprising Act II revelationwell, he finds plenty more reasons to stay single as the night goes on.
The play both exploits and subverts theatrical traditions, mining music hall, drawing-room farce, and psychodrama for formal nuggets that add grit to its bleak picture of love and marriage and the psychic hurdles that too often keep the two from cohabitating happily. It’s rich ground, and Johnson never lets bitterness outweigh the essential hopeful romanticism he hides in Eleanor’s characterwho clearly speaks for him. Jacobson makes a fine advocate for his arguments, too; she’s just surly enough to avoid nobilitywhich would be fataland yet she keeps the audience’s sympathies firmly with her.
Grover Gardner’s production often seems more stilted than scathing, though. Pacing is a problem (though one bit involving a doorbell and a detumescent member is smartly done), and not all of the personnel serve the play as well as Jacobson. McMonagle seethes convincingly as Nick, and Olcott makes an effortlessly disarming Brian, but Seehorn is working too hard at a kind of self-centered airheadedness she’s done better before, and Nelson doesn’t manage to show even a hint of whatever quality it is that’s kept Eleanor with Richard for nigh on two decades.
But the real trouble may be that much of the tension of Dead Funny depends on rigid social codes and much of the humor on a knowledge of Hill and other music-hall greats. Both codes and comics have less currency on this side of the pond, which may mean taking the play out of Britain takes some of the bite out of the play.
The most brilliant cast and the cleverest staging conceit couldn’t make “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, a revue of Sondheim rarities and favorites, more than the sum of its disjointed parts, and Eric D. Schaeffer’s oddly listless mounting at Signature Theatre can’t claim either one.
It’s a strangely traditional, college-coffeehouse affair, especially coming from the usually inventive Signature team. Seven mismatched performers regularly rearrange seven chairs between not particularly inspired readings of obscurities like “Saturday Night,” from a 1954 show never produced until last year in London, and standards like “Send in the Clowns,” which no one really needs to hear again. (A hint of context might help, but in an effort to speed the proceedings, Schaeffer and Co. have pared down the interstitial dialogue written for the revue’s 1983 premiere; “Clowns” gets no setup whatsoever and so comes across as particularly lounge-lizardish.)
Jon Kalbfleisch’s musical direction is as sensitive, subtle, and classy as ever, Lou Stancari’s angular set lends at least the illusion of sophistication to the affair, and there are redeeming performancesof the miraculous “Someone in a Tree” quartet from Pacific Overtures, particularly, and more generally from Daniel Felton, who’s not shy about using his mobile features to punch up a perverse lyric.
But Gregg Glaviano’s performance, to single out just one disappointment, is singularly devoid of affect, even in the exquisite Sweeney Todd lullaby “Johanna,” and the rest of the ensemble seems only marginally more involved. Worse, whoever constructed the program (to be fair, it wasn’t Signature, and they weren’t allowed to change the song list) doesn’t seem to have given any thought to theme. There’s no unifying concern in the material, and nothing in the production to lend even the appearance of coherence to the evening. Tomorrow you may very well love, but tonight? That’s another matter entirely.CP