Lampooning the theater for its pretensions to art and its inability to match the financial clout of cheap entertainment is a classic comedy device.
One thinks of P.G. Wodehouse, Ben Hecht, Kaufman & Hart, Noel Coward, and even Mel Brooks as icons of the form.
You can add one more name to that list—David Bell. His new comedy, “The Gay Naked Play,” is chock-full of theatrical satire and topical references that will leave you rolling in the aisles. It’s a delightful screwball comedy. Bell has captured all the best elements of the genre—appealing characters, a ridiculous plot, and humor that, like the best satire, balances its laser-like pointedness with affection for the subject matter.
The play opens on the stage of a midtown Off Off Broadway theater at the top of four long flights of stairs. The Integrity Players are in the last throes of an epic, expressionistic drama, complete with masks and a simulated birth. Think of that ponderous and impenetrable play that figures in the movie “Beaches,” which posits that angst equals art, and features Bette Midler wearing a grotesque mask. While the Integrity Players may have kept to their mission statement, their bank account is empty. Husband and wife Amanda and Dan, their lead actor Harold J. Lichtenberger, and stage manager Tim are confronting the harsh realities of producing a play for an audience of ten, four of whom are comps. To make matters worse, when their main benefactor, Amanda’s mother, pulls out, they are left with their ideals, plans for a production of “A Doll’s House,” and, ironically, Rodgers and Hammerstein to help them muddle through.
Enter Eddie Russini, an over-the-top artiste and promoter and the “genius” behind such hits as “Naked Boys Dancing Around Naked,” to save the day. Armed with his theatrical mantra, “No one goes to ‘Pericles’ because they want to,” Russini makes an understatement of the phrase “larger than life.’ Along with his cohorts, club-boys/designers T. Scott and Edonis, Russini is seeking a theater to showcase the... errr... acting ability of porn star Kit Swagger. Amanda’s mother arrives, sees the financial merit of the potential show and over Dan’s objections that they are selling out, bankrolls the enterprise. As Amanda’s mother points out, a theatrical democracy is no match for a financial dictatorship.
To tell any more of the plot would be to ruin the fun, but as can be imagined, there are twists and turns aplenty on the rocky road to getting an Off Off Broadway show on its feet. Bell may start with stock types, but like the best comedy writing he gives each of his characters something unique, so that originality combined with familiarity create something that seems fresh and engaging. In addition to the outrageous comedy, there is nothing from Patti LuPone to Uta Hagen to “Forbidden Broadway” that escapes Bell’s gimlet eye—and pen.
Even the best conceived and written comedies can fall flat if there isn’t a cast that can land the jokes. Fortunately, Emerging Artists is blessed with a company of masterful comedians whose total commitment to the insanity unfolding onstage makes this play irresistible. Under the direction of Christopher Borg and Jason Bowcutt, the absurdities unfold with a kind of abandoned, yet always precise, hilarity that characterized such shows as “Noises Off.”
Borg also plays Eddie Russini with a kind of manic flamboyancy that is consistently perfect. Similarly, Brett Douglas as T. Scott and Michael Silva as Edonis are wildly funny as the dim, but fabulous, designers More subtle performances are given by Christopher Yustin as Dan who is really the straight man of the piece and Gregory Marcel as Kit Swagger who finds the inner artist in the porn star with delightful results. Wayne Henry as Harold J. Lichtenberger is tremendous as the put upon thespian—a mixture of Tony Randall and Rowan Atkinson—who is consistently superbly funny, as is Ellen Reilly as Amanda’s mother. They have both taken stock characters and turned them into something really quite special.
But two performances stand out as extraordinary even among all this talent. Jessica Calvello scores with virtually every line as Amanda. She is a comedienne that rivals the best of them for timing, physicality, and milking the moment for the most laughs, but always staying true to her character. And Desmond Dutcher as Tim the stage manager is sweetly funny, a relatively low-key character whose longing for love drives even his most ridiculous moments. Both Calvello and Dutcher prove one of the essential premises of good comedy—if you can make the characters believable, no matter how absurd the situation, in their believable human moments, the audience will delightedly follow into the big comic payoffs.
As one of the characters points out when their play takes in $90 from their six paying customers for one performance, with only $11.50 more they could buy one ticket to “Mamma Mia!” Spend your $15 with Emerging Artists instead; I promise you a much better time.