About Silent Laughter, the new play that's just opened at the Lamb's Theatre, one thing needs to be said right away: the laughter is not silent. It's loud, frequent, sustained over a long period of time, and is - like the play itself - legitimate.
While Silent Laughter, which was written by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, is a surprisingly sweet tribute to the silent movie era of many decades past, it is thoroughly steeped in the grandest stage traditions. Pantomime, playing to the last seat of the balcony, getting by on determination and charisma, making the impossible seem commonplace... As many silent films were built on such vital stage precepts, and helped establish the now-immortal names of actors like Charlie Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle, paying tribute to silent films through a stage play of this nature just feels right.
That's not to say that the play itself is completely silent. None of its ten actors speak so much as a single word all evening, but the play features live organ accompaniment, played by Ralph Ringstead, that cheerfully accentuates and complements the action in the play. With a screen topping the proscenium displaying all the "cards" that help establish time (1917), place (New York), and dialogue, what's happening is always clear; a lot is being said even though no words are spoken.
The story is simple but involved, following a tramp named Billy as he falls in love with rich girl Ruth, gets a job in her father's screw-making plant, runs afoul of the dastardly mustachioed Lionel Drippinwithit, who attempts to steal both Billy's idea to make the factory productive and Ruth. Comic hijinks ensue, and just as Billy wins Ruth's heart, World War I breaks out, Billy enlists and flies off to France. Things are far from over.
But what allows Van Zandt and Milmore to fill 90 minutes (minus an intermission) with a story this straightforward? It's not just Dana Kenn's scenic design, which incorporates a combination of projections and sliding set pieces, or Cynthia Nordstrom's charmingly exaggerated costumes, or Richard Winkler's lights, though - as they all have been executed in black, white, and varying shades of grey - they play an important part in creating the proper atmosphere.
No, it's through attention to detail that Van Zandt and Milmore elevate the show. Little ideas - like selling fresh popcorn for a quarter in the lobby or having a sing-along of still-standard period tunes at the end of intermission - have a big impact, and Van Zandt's direction, which usually finds no less than three things happening at once, establish the same kind of organized chaos on which silent film comedies thrived. You're always aware the people involved are in control, but where that will lead is impossible to determine.
One of the best examples is a lengthy scene in which Billy and his friend attempt to help a heavily inebriated Ruth into bed, with ever more disastrous (and funnier) results. But scenes that devolve into city-wide chases, hat mix-ups, identity confusion, pants flinging, or pie slinging (in the messiest yet most irresistible scene of the evening), are so lovingly articulated with comic business for everyone, it's difficult to find many moments that don't work.
Van Zandt and Milmore star, and are tremendous fun as Billy and Ruth - Van Zandt's rubber face and highly expressive eyes make him an ideal silent personality, and no one milks the work's melodramatic possibilities more than Milmore. Glenn Jones, as Billy's Pal, recalls Harpo Marx, and is a nice earthy equivalent to Van Zandt's (slightly) more upscale comedy; John Gregorio is delightfully oily as Lionel; and Ken Jennings makes a huge comic impression in roles ranging from Ruth's father (Brewster Thickwad III) to Lionel's villainous thug. Megan Byrne, James Darrah, Jim Fitzpatrick, Ed Carlo, and Art Neill nicely round out the ensemble.
While great fun, Silent Laughter is not quite perfect - a few jokes (primarily involving a man with a fruitcake) seem a bit forced and dicey, and the laughs in the second act generally seem fewer and farther between.
But overall, Silent Laughter is a winner. If it might never make you long for the silent movie days again, it will make you appreciate the creative artistry behind them - and behind theatre pieces such as this one - all the more. But chances are, by the time the final "card" of the evening is displayed - "Sometimes you don't need words." - you will already have been long convinced of just that.