Moldy Oldies

Some plays are timely, some plays are timeless. Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild is one of the former. Thornton Wilder's Our Town is the latter. And in productions of each, currently onstage at Kitchen Dog Theater and Dallas Theater Center's Arts District house, respectively, the reason why timeless works better is obvious. The newer play, Durang's, seems stale and irrelevant, while the older words of Wilder hold up beautifully, still simple and touching, full of universal human truths.

Durang, off-Broadway's bitchiest comic voice of the 1980s, wrote Laughing Wild in 1987 as a rat-a-tat two-hander packed with topical jokes and from-the-headlines references to the Reagan administration, the Harmonic Convergence, the Meese Commission (who remembers what that was about? anyone? anyone?), Sally Jessy Raphael (then TV's newest talk-show star) and Alan Alda (then TV's hottest sitcom actor).

But what was hilarious 15 years ago now can sound cruel and befuddling. Jokes about Mother Teresa and Gene Siskel only serve as reminders that the little nun and the movie critic are dead and gone. Sally Jessy's been canceled. Alan Alda's lost his looks and plays grandpas in made-for-TV movies.

Where Laughing Wild once was dead-on social commentary, it is now little more than a verbal time capsule of water-cooler references from its era (and a few years before). Durang hits on est training, Lorenzo Lamas, Barbara Bach, Suzanne Somers, George McGovern, Herbie the Love Bug, Laugh-In, Tie a Yellow Ribbon and Dr. Ruth. The play's so musty with trivia, the jokes about Phil Donahue deserve a chuckle only because Donahue has just emerged from a decade-long retirement to host a new cable chat show.

That's the trouble with being in-the-moment as a writer. Racing to stay cutting-edge, one will inevitably be overtaken by events before the ink on the pages is dry. (That's what's so great about The Simpsons. Writing scripts up to two years before episodes air, they avoid anything too specifically topical. Try a Robert Blake joke or a bit about Bob Hope and you just never know what'll happen.)

Durang did himself no favors by fashioning Laughing Wild as a three-act-er eaten up by two 45-minute monologues delivered directly at the audience like stand-up material. They're smart-sounding--Durang's blasts at the irksome details of existence in the 1980s--but no longer very funny. The world is too different now. We've moved on. And no matter how clever any writer is today, come 2017 nobody will be splitting their sides at wisecracks about Winona Ryder's shoplifting or Gary Condit's philandering. Nobody's laughing at them now. That stuff already is so six months ago.

Good comedy writing these days dwells in the dark and bitter musings of author David Sedaris and on television in the fashionably hip, cum-hither bitchery of Sex & the City. But give it a few years, and Carrie and her galpals will seem as dated as Mary and Rhoda.

Durang's stage comedies were so firmly rooted in the '80s that they're not even camp yet. Maybe if Kitchen Dog director Tim Johnson had played Laughing Wild as a quaint period piece complete with giant shoulder pads and wing hair, it might have worked better. But as it is, his two main characters--The Woman, who's an escaped mental patient, and The Man, a neurotic New Yorker mad at the world--exist in no specific time and depend entirely too much on volume to get across Durang's dusty harangues.

As The Woman, Erin Burdette is all knobby limbs and bulging eyes. She's appropriately annoying and shrill as a manic wack-job shrieking about cab drivers and tuna fish, but she fails to bring any notion of spontaneity to her delivery. She sounds over-rehearsed and too often delivers her lines to the middle-distance instead of directly connecting with the audience.

As The Man, David Plunkett is better than Burdette at making his lines sound off-the-cuff. He undersells the material, as if to say he knows that we know that it's as hoary as a Dynasty rerun.

After their monologues, the two characters, both angry loners, intersect briefly in the tuna aisle at a supermarket, where The Woman bonks The Man on the head (it's not worth explaining why). Then they replay the moment several times, changing various elements and trying out different endings. Again, not funny. Pretty tiresome, actually. Like sitting through a rerun of a Jay Leno monologue from 1994.

More satisfying on every level is the Dallas Theater Center's production of Our Town, the now-classic 1938 Thornton Wilder play about life in a small New Hampshire village, where every character is a figure from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

DTC manages to breathe some fresh life into this reliable old drama, even if director Richard Hamburger punches the patriotic themes a bit too much in Act 3. The casting is good, with terrific performances by the young leads, Jessica Dickey as Emily Webb and Peter Katona as George Gibbs. Jerry Russell is a lovely and memorable Doc Gibbs. Bill Kux makes Mr. Webb a cuddly Yankee dad, cozying up to the stove 'longside his loyal wife (Jacqueline Knapp). The rest of the cast is ethnically mixed and age diverse, nice to see in a season when so many local theaters have featured large companies of all-Anglo under-30s.

The key role in Our Town is, of course, the Stage Manager, who speaks directly to the audience and serves to cue up the various flashbacks and flash-forwards Wilder provides (devices deemed avant-garde 65 years ago). In quick succession, we see the present, the past and the future of life in Grover's Corners, and in each scene, the Stage Manager is there to let us know what's happening. He also plays philosopher, giving us the Big Message behind the play's main ideas, though he usually delivers his little sermons as gently as Mister Rogers talking to a roomful of curtain climbers.

Most times, the Stage Manager is played by some crotchety-but-lovable grandfather type (paging Alan Alda) with a clam-chowdah accent and a corncob pipe in his lips. Not here. DTC's Our Town gives us the edgy, black-clad William Youmans and his young, lean, in-your-face take on the character. His Stage Manager is a little angry and full of grit, giving the play the goose in the pants it needs to keep us interested through all three acts.

Covering the years 1901 to 1913, the play focuses on the Webbs and the Gibbses, next-door neighbors and respectable citizens. Their kids grow up and fall in love. The kids have kids. Somebody dies too young.

Pretty simple. Set in the rhythms of daily life, in a time we imagine was simpler but in reality was lots tougher than we have it now, the play reinforces in Wilder's stark and poetic language the very things we still hold dear as Americans: love of family, of country, of life itself and appreciation for the millions of little moments we don't realize have meant the world to us until much later.

"Isn't the moonlight terrible?" asks the dreamy-eyed Emily, peering out of her second-floor bedroom (symbolized by a ladder center stage).

Wilder says terrible, but he means terribly beautiful. DTC captures beautiful moments in its Our Town and illuminates them with good directing and careful, skillful acting.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner