Wisdom Bridge Theatre


Synergy Theatre Company

The important thing in a joke isn’t the punch line, a middle-aged comedian advises a young writer in Jim Geoghan’s play Only Kidding. The important thing is the setup. It’s a point well proved by Geoghan in his punchy portrait of life in the cutthroat world of stand-up. There’s hardly a new joke to be found in Geoghan’s script, a virtually nonstop procession of borscht-belt patter, coarse insults, physical clowning lifted from old Marx Brothers and Three Stooges movies, and stereotyped, frequently obscene slurs against Poles, Italians, Greeks, the British, women, homosexuals, and the elderly. There’s even a variation on the old Ikey-and-Mikey burlesque routines in one of the play’s crucial relationships, the friendship between two members of a comedy team, a Jew and an Irishman. And the final, inevitable burst of slapstick violence comes straight out of old Bugs Bunny and Tweetie-and-Sylvester cartoons, evoked by the delicious movie music used to underscore the action–all smirking flutes and squeaking fiddles and shrieking trumpets and scrambling percussion. But the way Geoghan sets up this casebook collection and the warmth with which Wisdom Bridge’s midwest premiere of the script is played make for a very enjoyable study of the craft.

Jackie Dwayne is an aging monologuist of the Shecky Greene/Don Rickles variety trying to make a comeback following a heart attack. Jerry Goldstein, a coke-snorting Young Turk whose specialty is retrofitting old-style humor for today’s post-rock-and-roll audiences, is just starting to make a name for himself in New Jersey lounges as a warm-up act for singers with names like Joey Vee and Johnny Ventura. The two Jewish jokesters come from different eras (as Jerry notes when he sneers at Jackie’s assimilationist stage name), but they have a common goal: to get on the Buddy King Show, a televised talk and variety hour that can make or break a performer with a single spot.

In two acts, the play charts the separate paths that lead Jackie and Jerry to a fateful encounter in the TV studio one night, when, after years of hustling and hoping, the two men discover they’ve both been booked for the same show. Any comic will tell you that being on a TV show with another comic is probably worse than not being on a TV show at all; how the two men and their respective friends and advisers handle the situation, and what their choices reveal about their values, is the crux of the story.

As he shows in his jokes, Geoghan is not very concerned with originality, the script’s denouement is manipulative and sentimental, with the lovable old mensch emerging victorious over the scheming young schmuck. But Geoghan, himself a former stand-up comic, keeps his play fresh enough to hold an audience’s attention through his informed re-creations of the clubs and hotel rooms his characters inhabit (wittily visualized in James M. Yates’s set, which shifts from Catskill bungalow to Brooklyn basement to sleek Hollywood waiting room–all, tellingly, outfitted with supplies of liquor), his instructive reflections on the history and artistry of American stand-up comedy, and above all his energetic and well-defined characterizations.

Under Terry McCabe’s direction–brisk but never too fast, sharp but never too slick–a marvelous five-person cast makes the most of the play’s all-male retinue of has-beens, wanna-bes, and never-weres. With his raspy voice and fatalistic demeanor, Bernard Beck is the embodiment of Jackie’s infinite anxiety hidden behind a facade of worldly wisdom. Small and agile Eddie Jemison is scarily perfect as the egomaniacal, strung-out Jerry, cute and coy one moment and gripped by paranoid hostility the next. Bob Kohut, a brilliant character actor, is quite extraordinary as Sal D’Angelo, Jerry’s “mobbed-up” manager, who tries to use his criminal connections to further his client’s career; Kohut makes the stupid but sly Sal much more than just an easy comic target, and his delivery of Sal’s long monologue of desire for an unattainable starlet gives the play invaluable emotional depth. Gus Buktenica is likably laconic as Jerry’s comedy partner Tom Kelly, the Irish outsider in this Mediterranean-dominated milieu who (as Geoghan did) leaves the club scene to become a writer. And Jim Ortlieb is pricelessly sad and funny as TV producer Sheldon Kelinski, an ultrauptight neurotic improbably charged with the task of accommodating the volatile personalities who appear on Buddy’s show. (Buddy himself is never seen; does one need to view God to believe in him?) The kind of guy who dreads personal praise even more than he does personal criticism, Sheldon is that ridiculous but very real figure, the comedy professional with no apparent sense of humor (like Mel Cooley, the bald nerd forever mocked by Morey Amsterdam on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Ortlieb’s shrewdly paced performance emphasizes Sheldon’s humanity as well as his hilarity, and in the play’s crowd-pleasing climax bears out the old maxim that he who laughs last laughs best.

“Numberless are the world’s wonders,” says a lyric in The Gospel at Colonus, Bob Felson and Lee Breuer’s musical version of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. “But none more wonderful than man / Words and thought rapid as air / He fashions for his use . . . ”

In The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams’s 1961 variation on Sophocles’ ancient drama, the words are slow, the thought is confused, and the air is hot and heavy. A group of people find themselves thrust together in a seedy hotel on the Mexican coast in 1940. They are at once tragicomically mismatched and perfectly suited to each other: a young minister cast out from his church for sexual misdeeds and relegated to leading bargain-basement group tours of the local attractions; the hotel’s owner, an earthy widow who distracts herself from despair by playing around with her mestizo busboys; a sexy young teenager on the minister’s tour, dangerous temptation incarnate; a jealous and moralistic closet lesbian determined to keep the teenager out of the clutches of men; a family of Nazis, absurdly disporting themselves on the terrace while listening to news of Hitler’s war on the radio; and a pair of wanderers, a dying old man and the spinster granddaughter charged by fate with caring for him–Williams’s variation on Oedipus and Antigone, coming to the end of a life of suffering. There in the rain forest overlooking the sea (“the cradle of life,” someone calls it) Williams’s lost and lonely people find a sort of redemption–if not salvation, at least comfort.

Far less violent, active, or despairing than A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Suddenly, Last Summer, Iguana is a meditative work, a poet’s profound rumination on mortality. Very little actually happens in Iguana. Shannon, the minister, suffers a nervous breakdown, then is talked through it by Hannah, the spinster, who has been through one herself; the recuperated Shannon enters a tentative relationship with Maxine, the lusty widow, while Hannah helps her grandfather Nonno finish his valedictory poem before he passes on. No one is raped or castrated or murdered, no one breaks any bones trying to recapture lost youthful athletic prowess, and no one commits suicide or is hauled off to the madhouse. “Now let the weeping cease,” Sophocles wrote in Oedipus at Colonus, after the peaceful death of his ancient hero. “These things are in the hands of God.” And Hannah says at the end of Iguana, before she bows over Nonno’s dead body: “Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally? Please let us. It’s so quiet here, now.”

Without the theatrical pyrotechnics of its predecessors, Iguana depends instead on the depth of feeling its actors can summon up. Their tools are words, not actions, some of Williams’s stillest, sparest, most beautiful writing. Behind those words must lie a mountain–or perhaps an abyss–of experience.

That sense of experience is fatally lacking in the Synergy Theatre Company’s mounting of the play. Set designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod have built a hotel terrace that’s at once practical and poetically evocative, but it’s not inhabited by the people Williams envisioned. The actors are all too young for their roles–not just in their appearances but in the amount of experience they bring to the text. Catherine Martineau, an agile and attractive young actress, is particularly ill-suited to the hefty, aging earth mother Maxine; Pamela Webster comes off the best as Hannah, because she has found the right tone of voice for the part–elegant and emotionally repressed–but it’s too superficial to register the terror that Hannah hides behind her facade. Lawrence Bull’s Shannon is more petulant than desperate; and Dale Young is bizarrely soft-spoken as Nonno, making the old poet’s declamation of his last poem–the thematic statement of the whole play–impossible to understand even in the intimate Synergy Center. Williams’s exquisite play, too seldom produced, is disappointing here.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.