The idea of a carnival conjures up childhood memories and images of clowns, rides, games, and other entertaining attractions. But, as Murphy Guyer wants us to realize in his new play, World of Mirth, which opened last night at Theatre Four, there may be something darker and more sinister underneath. Like so many carnivals, there is something a little too familiar about World of Mirth as well.
What Guyer and the director, Dona D. Vaughn, have done is create a carnival-like atmosphere that both projects the magic of the carnival and the bleak undertones with which the play mostly deals. Michael Brown's stunning set, which is splashed with color and includes such amenities as tents and a dunk tank that actually works, is the primary contributor to this. The set, the costumes (by Tracy Christensen), and the direction always make you feel as though you are really on a carnival midway.
The characters, however, are less creative. In fact, they usually approach the stereotypical. There is the foul-mouthed, alcoholic clown (Mark Johannes), his partner (Kieran Campion) who wants to escape the midway for better opportunities, the woman who plays the Wild Woman of Borneo (Deirdre O'Connell) and is in love with the carnival's owner, Kaspar Kelly (Victor Slezak), even an old roustabout (George Bartenieff), the carnival's foreman (Jack Willis), and the local fire inspector (John Elsen).
The actors make the most of their roles, never letting the material down. Johannes's acidic Sweeney is cruelly comic and charismatic as one of the midway's main attractions. Deirdre O'Connell makes both the Wild Woman of Borneo and her actress Buffy appropriately hard-boiled, needy, and even a little touching. Slezak and Willis work well as the management, and, in the play's smallest role, Angela Gots makes a significant impression as the foreman's daughter, who seldom has much to say. Bartenieff, Campion, and Elsen are slightly more grating in their roles, but they are still as believable as can be expected.
Despite the setting and characters, Guyer does little that is unanticipated. The dialogue is frequently cliched, and his story about the carnival's financial difficulties and the behavior, ethical and otherwise, of its employees, is very predictable. There are outbreaks of deal-making, backstabbing, brawling, lying, even a minor romantic subplot, all of which leads to a less-than-surprising conclusion.
For the play's imperfections, World of Mirth is mostly well constructed, and is somewhat entertaining throughout. The dialogue of the various characters is well written, but the story they tell is so overly familiar and underdeveloped, we are never exactly sure why we should care about their struggles.
In the end, we don't. As Vaughn and Brown's work tries to draw us into the world of the midway, so does Guyer keep us at a safe distance. Unfortunately, it is that, more than anything else, that keeps World of Mirth from being the greatest show on earth.
Amy Danis/MARS Theatricals, Inc.