Rally Theatre Company

Funny how hard it is to be funny. One comic actor can convulse an audience with mugging, pratfalls, slow burns, double takes, and throwaway wisecracks–while another can do exactly the same shtick and look as stiff as a corpse. He’s unfunny, and he may never be anything else. Some things you can’t teach, and comedy tops the list. More than just mastering droll business and stopwatch timing, it takes guts–the guts to take risks, to escape your own protective ego.

For comic actors too much confidence or stage presence can be a liability. You need a hungry edge. The proverbial class clown survives by confusing or surprising people about himself; far from intending to give up the game, he wants to make a career of it.

All of which is why, despite its pell-mell tone and few lapses of energy, the Rally Theatre’s production of Moliere’s farce A Doctor in Spite of Himself is so short on hilarity.

The story of Sganarelle, a boastful woodcutter forced to impersonate a physician, is full of what would seem to be knockabout, actor-proof buffoonery. Sganarelle’s resentful wife “reveals” that her husband is a famous doctor who can cure anything–but who won’t practice medicine unless he’s beaten. Moliere’s targets of course are the real frauds–self- inflated and incompetent doctors–and the satire is pretty timeless. (“Mistakes are never your fault; it’s always the fault of your patient for dying,” explains Sganarelle.)

Moliere relies on a favorite formula–selfish father tries to prevent wily daughter from marrying resourceful lover who pursues her in disguise; he even throws in a saucy wet nurse with whom horny Sganarelle gets to play doctor. The Rally staging employs a serviceable new translation by Mark Fearnow, while director Martin Kappel, former head of Indianapolis’s Midsummer Mime Theatre, may well be, as the press kit says, expert in the grand burlesque of commedia dell’arte.

But where it matters with Moliere, in the clowning, we only get the surface. It’s always a big mistake to blow slapstick up to be larger than life; even at its most frenetic, it works best when it’s life-size. Exaggeration, which is always external, produces dutiful clowning that ignores the motivation that makes characters so hilarious in their defects. Combined with a real lack of flair for verbal humor, this kind of uncritical comedy is demonstrably dead on arrival.

Thom Van Ermen’s Sganarelle illustrates the shortfall. An attractive young player, Van Ermen seems far too assured to convey this hungry trickster’s devious panic. Sganarelle’s rage at being pummeled into playing a physician quickly changes to a delicious delight in fooling folks with his phony Latin mumbo-jumbo and nonsense diagnoses. But Van Ermen never lets us glimpse the real Sganarelle playing the impostor. He’s having too good a time aping the part to work at it; his overreactions make you realize how much of Sganarelle is being held back. (Van Ermen should note that Chevy Chase’s hip smugness robs nearly everything he does of surprise or character.)

Empty externalization besets other roles, though Diana Simonzadeh’s portrayal of Sganarelle’s shrewish wife approaches the comical. Scott Cooper plays a jealous husband as a slack-jawed Gomer Pyle, but he too lets the appearance, in this case the accent, do the acting.

The Rally company has certainly achieved the right look, from the preshow warm-up in the lobby (here converted into a marketplace) to the all-purpose stairs and multiple doors that farce thrives on. But the clowning, too tentative to be hilarious, proves that technique is not enough. This froth plays it too safe to hit the anarchy of farce.