Drury Lane Dinner Theatre

What makes people laugh? This question started to nag me as I watched Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. at the Drury Lane Dinner Theatre.

The play, by William Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, struck me as profoundly stupid. In order to reduce his taxes, an accountant named Jon claims that Leslie, his male roommate, is his wife. When an IRS agent pays a visit, Jon forces Leslie to dress like a woman. Then Jon gets the tax collector drunk and invites him to stay for dinner, which forces Leslie to remain in drag for most of the play.

Other characters stumble into this preposterous situation. Kate, who is engaged to Jon but having an affair with Leslie, becomes the object of the tax collector’s drunken advances. The landlord keeps making surprise visits, hoping to find that the two men are harboring a female roommate, in violation of their lease. Jon’s mother shows up unexpectedly for a visit. After being introduced to Leslie, still in full drag, she flees the apartment and returns with a preacher who promises to cure her son for a mere $10.

The cartoon characters, the smarmy sex jokes, the ridiculous plot twists–all of it falls somewhere between boring and offensive. And yet I looked around during the play and saw people wiping away tears of laughter. “Look at that! Look at that!” one man gasped between belly laughs. And on the way out I overheard a woman say to her companions, with deep satisfaction, “Boy, I sure enjoyed that.”

I know that a person’s sense of humor is subjective, but how can the same play seem so relentlessly stupid to one person and so screamingly funny to others?

But as I watched, Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. started to provide some clues to this mystery. Whatever else it might be, humor is a reaction to tension; but the source of that tension can vary. Tension is sometimes produced by surprise or paradox. “We’re five stories up!” Jon screams at Leslie when he leans too far out the window. “If you fall and break your neck, I’m going to kill you!” This absurd threat causes a momentary tension, a trick to the mind, relieved by laughter. Or at least it’s supposed to.

Misfortune also gives rise to tension, but in comedy it’s usually misfortune that happens to somebody else. Crossing his legs like a woman, Leslie crushes his testicles between his thighs. This arouses anxiety in anyone who can empathize, but the viewer’s anxiety is quickly relieved by the recognition that this painful misfortune is happening to someone else. As Mel Brooks has observed: Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall down and break your leg.

But in Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. the jokes are built primarily on the tension aroused by sexual anxiety. Men dressing up as women, for example, blurs sex roles and arouses anxiety in anyone who needs to keep those roles distinct. Some of the biggest laughs come when Leslie sashays around the stage limp-wristed, his arms flapping like wings. He’s acting like a “woman,” but he’s also implying that his behavior is ridiculous, which evokes an explosion of tension-relieving laughter.

This type of humor, however, makes the play pathetic. Sex is certainly a rich source of humor. The mating rituals of most species tend toward the ridiculous. But the sniggering sex jokes in Love, Sex, and the I.R.S. are built on a deeply rooted shame about sexuality and the human body. When Leslie falls off a ledge, for example, he returns to the apartment and describes how he fell on an enormously fat woman sunning herself on the patio below. This image of blimplike obesity taps into the anxiety many people feel about their own imperfect physiques. It also invites people to laugh at someone else’s weight problem. Needless to say, the audience found Leslie’s description very funny.

Could anything be done to give some genuine humor to this insipid comedy? Larry McCauley, who plays the tax collector, comes awfully close. A master of comic mugging, McCauley actually made me laugh as he transformed the dry, taciturn Floyd Spinner into a drunken sybarite hell-bent on getting some wine, women, and “mung chowder gumbo” into his life. And Joseph Popp injects some clever physical humor into his portrayal of Leslie, who starts honking like a goose whenever he gets nervous.

Director Guy Barile obviously has encouraged these broad comic performances, which contain the only traces of imagination in the show. Such humor can backfire, however. The landlord, played by Dennis Kennedy with a thick accent and shambling gait, merely looks like a ham actor.

Kennedy’s performance reiterates the lesson that the line between comedy and stupidity is often hard to locate. As Steve Martin put it, “Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.”