The play's structure is simple. The first act consists of two monologues. First, we meet Monk's character, a woman who has been in and out of psychiatric care, at the end of a very bad day involving a panic attack in a grocery store, a fight with a cab driver, and an encounter with a street musician. Before long, this woman has moved on from detailing the events of her day to ranting about and railing against everything that makes life hard to live, from the environment to loneliness. Monk's character is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, intriguing and threatening, and Monk balances all these aspects with panache. It is a testament to Monk's characterization that when she breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience, many audience members at the performance I attended were engaged enough to speak back.
If Durang's character is somewhat more centered, perhaps that's because he has been engulfed in the healing trends of his time, including participating in a "harmonic convergence" in Central Park. While Monk's monologue takes place in a nebulous time and place, Durang is more clearly giving a lecture about his experiences attempting to improve his ability to control his own life. However, this too becomes a launch pad for Durang's character to get angry, lashing out at homophobia, inaction in the face of AIDS, intolerance based in religion, and more. Durang reminds us that we conquered our fears about AIDS by laughing, and that the blatant homophobia of the past (as opposed to the more subtle homophobia of the present) made us angry – and sometimes, it's fun to get angry. This need to escape helplessness through laughter gives the play its title, from Samuel Beckett's line in Happy Days (quoted by Monk's character in this play) about "laughing wild amid severest woe."
The two characters are linked by the Monk's character's panic attack in the grocery store, during which she hit Durang's character. The second act begins with several variations of this scene, during which the two characters' roles are clarified. The woman is the schlemiel, the man the schlimazel – Yiddish archetypes meaning "one who spills soup" and "one upon whom soup is spilled." We discover these scenarios are playing out in the characters' dreams – which are strangely the same for both. The unlikely pair complement each other well, and Monk and Durang make a dynamic comedy team, with Monk's larger than life personality only making Durang's understated deadpan seem that much funnier in contrast. The play culminates with an extended talk show sequence on the set of "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show." In this final sequence, Durang's tendency as a playwright to rant about issues threatens to overwhelm the show, but the actors' and director's light touch keep things moving along with enough laughs that we manage to avoid feeling like we're being lectured.
While the play may not have audiences "laughing wild," the evening is certainly very funny. And although it has been criticized for showing its age, and there are many pop-culture references that may require digging into memories of a decade better left forgotten, the show plays well as a period piece, and its messages are still potent. While our "severest woe" today may be a new challenge, and tomorrow may present an even newer one, the need for wild laughter has not gone out of style.
Laughing Wild, presented by the Huntington Theatre Company (Nicholas Martin, Artistic Director) at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston, now through June 26. Evening performance times are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 9:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm. Matinees are Saturdays at 5:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $14 to $50, with a $5 discount for students and seniors. A $14 student rush is available two hours before curtain. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617-266-0800 visit their website at www.huntingtontheatre.org or www.bostontheatrescene.com. Tickets can also be purchased in person at the B.U. Theatre Box Office on Huntington Avenue (across from Symphony Hall) or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office at the BCA on Tremont Street in the South End.