If comedy is tragedy plus time, then 150 years from now, The Complete History of America (abridged) might be hailed as a comic masterpiece. As it is now, however, the show's two hours of skits, song parodies and adolescent silliness, written by the same trio of author-actors who condensed all the words of the Bard into the 90-minute Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged), range from painfully tasteless to merely trivial.
Now playing at the Bath House Cultural Center, Complete History uses only three actors, and the guys in the GoodDoctor Productions company give it a valiant but flawed effort. Chris Klongpayabal, Preston Murchison and Ben Rosario gallop through sketches faster than grease through a goose, but their energy feels forced and their noisy delivery can't make up for soggy material.
The show desperately needs an air of Stooge-ian antic mischief. What this production does instead is make a sort of desperate plea for attention. The actors are not helped any by the lackluster direction of Beth Klongpayabal (Chris' wife and one of the four founders of the new theater troupe). Having the guys run up into the audience and enter and exit through the back of the house might be an attempt to expand the smallish acting space, but the gymnastics murder the timing.
The Complete History of America (abridged)
The Bath House Cultural Center
Continues through February 1. Call 214-458-9187.
Still, it's impossible not to like the gemütlich actors, even when they're reduced to making balloon animals, drenching the front row with water pistols or vrooming around the stage like the Marquis Chimps on imaginary motorcycles.
Rosario looks like a young Bryant Gumbel and has a 1,000-watt grin and unflagging enthusiasm. Murchison is a talented mimic who performs spot-on impressions of John Wayne, Walter Cronkite and Ronald Reagan (depicted as a ventriloquist's dummy on the knees of Nancy in one of the funnier bits). Chris Klongpayabal is sturdy of build, with a twinkle in his eye and an admirable willingness to make an absolute doof of himself decked out in Lucille Ball drag.
The Complete History of America (abridged) attempts a farcical chronology of events, starting around 1400 and, in a series of sketches and blackouts, making hops, skips and jumps to the present. Author-actors Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichener, who originated the show 10 years ago for their Reduced Shakespeare Company, tip their leftist hand early. This revue overflows with apologies and political correctness.
Man, do they lay it on thick. Lord knows we need a giant dose of agit-prop theater these days, but this script's many references to imperialistic land grabs and the extermination of indigenous tribes grow tiresome and heavy-handed. White men bad. White men greedy. White men violent. We get it already, long before the dig at Disney's Pocahontas and the gooey hug for Noam Chomsky.
Act 1 begins with the actors entering singing the national anthem one beat too fast--a signal that they'll be skewing the accuracy of history as we know it. From there the setup spirals into vaudeville.
The voyage of Amerigo Vespucci is sung to the theme from Gilligan's Island. A height-challenged pair of Revolutionary War soldiers serves as a visual pun on the word "Minutemen" ("better lovers than you might think"). Jokes about the Salem witch trials serve to remind us that there was nothing funny about the Salem witch trials. Explorers Lewis and Clark are played as Frick and Frack.
Lewis: "Didn't you go to college, stupid?"
Clark: "Yeah, I came out the same way."
"America the Beautiful" is rewritten with p.c. lyrics about "free-roaming non-human beings." "The Star-Spangled Banner" takes a hit for being "militaristic, patriarchal and written in an impossible key." The word "American" is rearranged to spell "I can ream."
Betsy Ross shows off her "new" designs for Old Glory, including one incorporating a happy face and a rainbow. Somebody pops up to announce, "In sports, the Patriots trounced the Redskins," a hacky joke only Robin Williams could love.
Act 2 fast-forwards from World War I to II--with dick jokes about FDR--and then grinds to a halt with a long, unfunny sketch called "Dodge Rambler, Boy Buckaroo," which spoofs old-timey radio shows. Then comes a confusing film noir something-or-other that tries and fails to mine humor (as if there is any) from the McCarthy Era and the Cold War by making Ricky and Lucy's neighbors "Fred and Ethel Rosenberg."
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Somewhere in all this mishigas arise creaky gags about Monica Lewinsky and a JFK-style "magic bullet" replay of the shot that killed Abe Lincoln, a "joke" done with greater subtlety and more elegant comedy writing on the "second spitter" episode of Seinfeld.
The actors in Complete History sometimes speak casually to the audience, going off-book to engage in what should be witty ad-libs. Improv comedy isn't as easy as it looks. It takes better-honed comedy chops than the GoodDoctor actors have to carry off direct interplay with the crowd. On opening night, a question-and-answer session dependent on repetitions of the punch line "Whoopi Goldberg" went nowhere and made the small audience uncomfortable. The guys onstage stopped another scene cold to heckle a latecomer, but the interruption didn't build to a laugh. It just seemed mean.
The funniest part of the show comes right at the end, when the actors let history repeat itself as they rewind the last 400 years of pop culture. Going in reverse, "Michael Jackson gets blacker and blacker" and "Mike Tyson spits an ear onto Evander Holyfield's head."
Complete History isn't a complete failure, but with the life span of a nation to draw on, the show would be so much more memorable if it took potshots that were smarter and sharper. As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, "Life must be lived forward, but understood backward." But not necessarily with balloon animals.