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Conventional wisdom be damned: It’s the sendup that’s the sincerest form of flattery. It’s how you know that the drag queens actually love Liza, that The Onion’s editors worship the anecdotal lede, that David E. Kelly secretly adores the sacred monster that is Nancy Grace. Right this minute, on two D.C. stages, it’s how the playwright John Byrne proves his admiration for literature, art, the empty-headed English git, and the eternally striving Scot—and how monologist Sherry Glaser manifests her love for her crazy-making family, drama-queen sister, and manic-depressive mother and all. Two dramatically different pieces, Byrne’s Writer’s Cramp and Glaser’s Family Secrets, done in decidedly different styles, are both pretty delightful when it’s over and done with.
Byrne’s ’70s-vintage satire, a mockumentary vaudeville staged with gleeful, sardonic relish by Kathleen Akerley, is easily the flashier of the two: Ostensibly a worshipful study of one Francis Seneca McDade, “writer, philosopher, poet, sage,” it’s really a heroic snark on both the unsung-genius figure and the high-toned hagiography thereof, complete with metaphor-drunk host and opaquely precious biographical vignettes.
The former, presiding over the evening’s joint meeting of the Nitshill Writing Circle and the Busby Sketch Club, Ôªøpromises us a thorough examination of “the clutch of eggs from which may be unscrambled the mysteries of this rara avis,” a vigorous tilling-up of the “literary legumes sown so lovingly” throughout an unjustly unheralded career. The latter deliver with deadpan efficiency on that threat, capturing McDade (a deliciously self-deluded Jason Stiles) in the variously maudlin lows and the one brief, ridiculous high of his artistic career, from its early manifestations at a rural prep school through its peak in the galleries of ’60s London to its shabby end in a grubby small-town nowhere.
Between these “striking tableaux vivants,” as Jim Jorgensen’s increasingly preposterous narrator insists on calling them, a stagehand-organist-mime (the hysterical Jay Hardee) performs snippets of McDade’s oeuvre, including the following impenetrably burred verseÔªø:
Door dreekit Dormley’s dimples hing/Roon’ his knees in wrinklit rime/An’ aw the Kings graut him a boon/Fur sic a furry woggle true.
And, really, that ought to be sufficient—don’t you think? Byrne, God bless him, further illuminates the mind of McDade with excerpts from his collected letters, several of which rouse their author to outbursts of a, ahem, passionate nature, and one of which offhandedly informs a submissions editor that “the verse about the newts is but a sketch for a longer poem.” There’s a “lost” prison journal, too, inscribed on the usual roll of toilet tissue, and Jorgensen and Hardee both branch out to play lust-filled landladies and dithering Oxford dons and even McDade’s scandal-haunted mum. (Hardee vamping Stiles over the arm of a Queen Anne wingback is one thing, but the vision of Jorgensen in size 12 flats is nothing short of awe-inspiring.) The sum of all this tongue-in-cheek exactitude? A portrait of the artist as a young, middle-aged, and increasingly decrepit man, battered by cruel fortune but determined to the end to break into a creative pantheon that’s having none of it.
Richard Montgomery’s witty and surprisingly versatile set spreads the action out in a kind of narrative chronological warren (and up into the Warehouse Theater’s rafters), among whose cubbies and hidey-holes Akerley’s cast puts the play’s chipper nonsense across pretty deftly. They display a well-drilled, unified sense of comic timing, along with the kind of deliberate obliviousness to taste that marks the finer works of Christopher Guest; they know, though their characters never for an instant suspect, how much humbug there is about both McDade and the life he aspires to, and it’s partly that dissonance that makes the whole business so much fun.
What goes missing, perhaps, is the supposedly inherent sense that McDade does in fact have a touch, in addition to the temperament, of the poet—just a singularly Caledonian touch, which naturally goes unappreciated by the supposedly superior Brit-erati whose ranks he’s so doggedly trying to join.
No matter: It’s still a romp, and a lively one, sprightly and smart more or less from start to finish. And that, given the range and the riotousness of Byrne’s fancy, means Akerley’s three troupers are working their behinds pretty successfully off.