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It is possible on stage to have too much of a good thing. Cameron MacIntosh’s megaspectacles long ago made the case with scenic overkill, just as David Mamet’s tongue-tied sputterers proved that a playwright can pay more attention than is really wise to the way people actually talk. Most theatergoers have seen shows with a surfeit of emotionnot emotion overplayed exactly, just too much of it to be absorbed comfortably in a couple of hoursor of intellect, or of slapstick, or simply of words.
But I’d not have thought the same could be said for theatricality or cleverness. Those attributes would seem to be the theater’s stocks-in-tradelimitlessly valuable, and so essential to a show’s two-hour traffic on the stage that audiences simply couldn’t get enough of them.
So how to explain the curious sensation I had this week of drowning in ingenuity at both Arena Stage’s The Miser and Studio Theater’s Hip 2: Birth of the Boom? The work being done isn’t just creditable, it’s pretty much theatrical geniusplayful, sure-footed, keenly observed, nimbly staged, and filled with nonstop wit.
It’s also a tad exhausting. Enough so, in fact, that I found myself withdrawing from the experiences occasionally out of overstimulation as surely as if they had been boring, which they most definitely were not.
At Arena, it took a while to reach critical overload. Molière’s The Miser has been cleverly reconceived by director Kyle Donnelly and adaptor John Strand as a romp through the rampant materialism of the Reagan ’80s. Stingy old Harpagon (Henry Strozier) has chained his tattered furniture to the floor, buried his fortune in the garden, and installed surveillance cameras in every cranny on his property. He makes his first entrance cackling greedily while seated at a pop-up desk laden with electronic monitoring devices that screech and flash lights when anyone so much as breathes on something he regards
His children (Matthew Rauch and Holly Twyford in style-victim mode) appear to have dressed for an imminent disco expedition and are empty-headed enough to regard that as a cultural outing. The household servants are all either illegal immigrants (Henry Martin Leyva’s sharkskin-suited Valere), computer geeks (Sarah Marshall’s spike-haired La Fleche), or sentimentalized white trash (J. Fred Shiffman’s grease-covered Jacques). And the jokes Strand has given them are about as far removed from 17th-century poetry as the characters are from French royalty. To wit: “Harpagon wouldn’t give you the goddamn flu, he’d lend it to you.”
Strand’s adaptation is loaded with apt, amusingly caustic references to Don Rickles, Nancy Reagan, Ikea bunk beds, Yamaha guitars, and Hamburger Helper, all delivered with consummate timing by a cast that is pretty much performing at a gallop even when crawlingas Marshall does at one point, under Harpagon’s desk while humming the Star Trek theme. She shifts tunes to the Mission: Impossible theme when she’s ready to break into his computer, and you get the impression that if Donnelly and her designers could have dangled the actress, Cruiselike, from wires without spending 10 minutes getting her into the rigging, they’d have done that, too.
In short, the creators are throwing everything they’ve got at the audienceincluding sly winks about Lindsay W. Davis’ costumes (“A beret?…What are you, in a French comedy?”) and Linda Buchanan’s in-the-round setting (“keep your back to the wall”)almost as if they’d discovered a new Marx Brothers’ romp. In fact, The Miser feels a lot like the 80-minute movies Hollywood made from the Bros.’ three-hour stage extravaganzas: wildly, amusingly, inventivelyand just a bit too relentlesslyclever. The only thing missing is the boring Zeppo stuff that always gets cut when the films are shown on cabledopey romantic interludes that allowed patrons to relax their jaw muscles for a moment and reflect on the idiocy they were witnessing. The problem is, those moments serve a dramatic purpose, and when they aren’t present, or when they’re tricked up so that they’re funny, too, audiences can start to feel hectored. By intermission at The Miser, what with lovers running frantically from the folks they’ve been promised to, and everybody scrounging furiously for a bit of Harpagon’s cash, it’s hard not to wish Donnelly had found a way to work a Molièrean equivalent to Harpo’s harp.
What she provides instead is a rousing chorus of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” which is admittedly in keeping with the prevailing Reagan-era ambience. Also, a series of genuinely uproarious bits of physical business, many of them assayed by Strozier’s grotesque Harpagon, who is disheveled and owlish enough to live up to a servant’s description of him as “the least human human of the human race.” There’s also a delicious moment in which Shiffman turns a dinner menu into a screwball ballet, and another in which Franchelle Stewart Dorn’s matchmaker toadies so aggressively that she manages to revolt even herself (“on you,” she murmurs to a drooling Harpagon, “a little phlegm looks good.”)
This is the sort of meticulously considered production that can get a laugh with a phone’s busy signal, where light cues, costumes, and set pieces all prompt giggles. But it’s not until the very end of the evening that there’s a moment you’re allowed to really savor. That moment is a doozymacabre, creepy, and fiercely evocative of the monstrous human avarice that Molière, Strand, and Donnelly have been sending up all evening.
It doesn’t ask foror geta laugh. Would that there were three moments like it, earlier in the evening.
“I’m gonna give you a moment, ’cause I know that’s funny,” smiled Thomas W. Jones II, the author and star of Hip 2: Birth of the Boom, after a line he’d spouted at the show’s final preview met only with mild titters. He was right, the line was funny. So was his delivery. And when he repeated it, the audience finally responded with the sort of laugh he’d been looking for all evening.
Of course, by pausing, he’d given patrons the respite they needed to catch their collective breath. Jones is the sort of performer who really does leave you breathless. He talks faster than any stand-up comic you’d care to mention, unreeling his jazz-inspired riffs on African-American maledom in a fast-forward rush that threatens to consume every last bit of oxygen onstage.
Much of what he says sounds a lot like stand-up (“Think God doesn’t have a sense of humor?…He put Mother Teresa and Tammy Faye Bakker in the same profession”), but he’s chiefly an enormously engaging actor (and writer), traveling from Point A to Point B with his character, and reveling in the confusion and angst of the journey.
The Wizard of Hip, which he brought to Studio Theatre in 1992, was a solo act in which he starred as Afro Jo, a hip operator who was forever bouncing, rolling, and careening toward the front row with moves straight out of a Harlem Globetrotter playbook. This time, Afro Jo is accompanied by four doo-wop dudes (aka “the a cappella fellas”), who back him up with “shoo-be-doo-wahs” while playing everyone from his buddies to his sisters.
Like Jones, these folks are prodigiously talented. LeRoi Simmons has the sweetest voice this side of Smokey Robinson, Patdro Harris has the snappy moves of a viper (he also choreographed the show), Gary E. Vincent is the dapperest clothes horse on the premises, and Michael Howell corners the husky-voiced comedy concession. Which you’d think wouldn’t leave much for Jones’ Afro Jo, but he’s definitely the evening’s center, roaring broadsides and jokes at all comers, moderating arguments between his head and other parts of his anatomy, and even launching into a version of “Sunrise, Sunset” devised for a minishow he calls Fiddler ‘n the Hood (“one drive-by followed by another…”).
Sounds like fun, right? So why wasn’t the audience buying it at that preview? Matinee blues, maybe, or exhaustion from taking in the AIDS Quilt, the Hispanic March, and the Taste of D.C. festival all in one weekend. Or maybe just the fact that a sloppily executed opening number and some problems with microphones had gotten things off on the wrong foot. Partly in compensation, the cast had lurched to full throttle before the audience was entirely on board, and it wasn’t until maybe 10 minutes in, when Afro Jo popped from a hole in the stage wearing a baby bonnet and diaper that he began to make real contact with patrons. By that time everybody was pushing too hard.
The second act went better, partly because patrons and cast members had a chance to chill out at intermission, and partly because the show’s latter half is just plain quieter. The score (composed by Jones and music director Keyth Lee) starts including some ballads in between its percussive raps, and the script turns serious at about the same moment. Also, while Marsha A. Jackson-Randolph’s staging panache doesn’t fadeshe favors flashy gestures, bold colors, and energy that just doesn’t quitshe does allow the performers to slow down their delivery a trifle, so you can savor the graceful arc of, say, a line about “ridin’ solo, and feelin’ so low.”
Jones doesn’t have quite as much to say this time as he did in The Wizard of Hip, though he’s dealing with marriage, pregnancy, and the various perils society poses for African-American males. That may be why he and Jackson-Randolph have backed Afro Jo up with production values and all those extra cast members, where he once went it alone. It’s the sort of natural trap that productions often fall into.
I remember, years ago, catching Bob Fosse’s Chicago in previews when the director was still laboring to reduce that glitz-heavy musical from an unwieldy three-and-a-half hours to a more manageable three. There was a moment in the first act in which Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach needed, for plot purposes, to chat in a restaurant, and the director was clearly struggling to make it work. To dress the scene up, he’d posed a bowler-hatted dancer/waiter just behind their table, back to the audience, legs criss-crossed and arms bent at odd angles, with a serving tray held aloft on one palm. When Verdon got to the scene’s punch linewhich wasn’t much of a joke, reallythe dancer punctuated it as the lights dimmed, by whirling to face the audience, bringing down the tray, snapping his fingers and saying, “Blackout.”
I recall thinking, “That’ll gothat’s Fosse saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a director.’” And sure enough, by opening night the scene ended with the punch line. Verdon had found a way to get the laugh without the flourish, and less turned out to be more.
Both The Miser and Hip 2 could use similar restraint. Which is not to suggest for a second that they aren’t well worth catching.CP