Also see Sharon's review of Rose and Walsh
Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild is one weird little play. Durang takes a fairly unusual but not earth-shattering event - a woman bopping a man over the head in the tuna fish aisle of a grocery store - and builds an entire play around it. The first act is comprised of two half-hour long monologues. The first is that of the woman, a former mental patient who can't get a job and can't seem to find any joy in life. She discusses her life, how nobody seems to understand her, and the sort of day she was having that led her to hit the man rather than politely ask him to move out of the way so she could purchase some tuna. The man's monologue follows. He's a nerdy sort of guy who is trying hard to adopt positive thinking as a way of life; he frequently has to stop his monologue for an affirmation, and he frequently has to stop his affirmations for a reality check. He explains why he didn't ask the woman what she wanted in the grocery store and tries to figure out how he could have replayed the situation in a way that would not have resulted in him getting hit on the head.
The second act finally shows us the Tuna Fish Incident, followed by the playing out of various alternative versions in rapid succession, none of which end any better. Had the play stopped here - perhaps ending with a successful version - it would have been a cute evening and an interesting reflection of how society's pressures sometimes prevent us from making normal human contacts. But Durang has something else in mind. The man and woman then begin recounting dreams - bizarre surrealistic dreams (where, for example, one's father appears in a potato). First, the man and woman have the same dreams. Then, they appear in each other's dreams. The play never resolves itself in reality, finding its conclusion only in this mutual dream world.
In its airing at the Eclectic Company Theatre, the second act is weaker than the first. Beyond the reenactments of the Tuna Fish Incident, which are played quickly enough to really build to a fever pitch, the bulk of the act bogs down in its overlong dream sequences. A sequence in which the woman takes on the role of a daytime talk show host, with the man playing her religious icon guest, has a particularly unfavorable laughter-to-length ratio.
Taylor Ashbrook's greatest asset in playing the woman is her eyes. Ashbrook opens her eyes frighteningly wide in a manic stare whenever she wants to emphasize the woman's insanity. Ashbrook is also good with the peaks and valleys in the woman's monologues, slowly and effectively building from a small rational moment into a big insane one. But her overall delivery is just shy of believable. Her speech has a cadence which makes it sound scripted. When she takes a moment to ask the audience, "Are you all following this so far?" her voice moves into a more realistic delivery that probably should be present in her entire performance.
Robert Briscoe Evans is more natural as the man. When he stops reciting an affirmation in order to express his reservations about it, he is completely believable. Evans also has better material. Rather than simply rail insanely against things that trouble him, Evans gets to present better arguments. At one point, he argues against those who say AIDS is God's revenge against homosexuals by taking on the role of an Archie Bunker-like deity who would order such retribution, and the ridiculousness of the image elegantly and humorously makes his point.
In moments like that one, Laughing Wild is solidly entertaining. But the production doesn't get as many big laughs as it could, and when the script ventures off into the bizarre, there are even less.
Laughing Wild plays at the Eclectic Company Theatre in North Hollywood, through March 23, 2003. For reservations and information, call (818) 508-3003.
The Eclectic Company Theatre presents Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang. Directed by Mark L. Taylor. Producers Beanhole Productions, Aaron Belliston and Valente Rodriguez; Stage Manager Rachel Manheimer; Set Designer Jeff G. Rack; Lighting Designer John Dickey; Sound Designer Jeff Folschinsky; Costume Designer Mary Reilly; Art Direction Dotsy Evans; Illustration Jerry Cronin; Draperies Christine Zirbel.