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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Gallows Humor, a new play

Or: Non Timetus Messor *

“I'll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion....but as long as you have the sound of laughter, I can’t take your sense of humor. And with it you have nothing to fear from me” So saith the Senses Taker, the odd little monster who nearly derails the epic of Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. But whimsical as he is, the Senses Taker’s powers might be justly applied to Death, or rather that of looming mortality, which is if anything more disruptive and terrifying. And in the face of this last enormity, even jokes fail to buoy our spirits as we race into the unknown.

Fortunately for us Will Sonheim, in his new play, only comes at the big and scary by way of the surprising. It’s more a play about changeable Comedy than implacable Death, and presents itself as the finest of Whitman’s samplers of humor. There’s slapstick, awkward interaction, sight gags, self-reference, puns, dirty humor, extraordinary people in ordinary situations, ordinary people in extraordinary situations, satire, serendipity, and good ol’ fashion suffering. But in the nougaty core of every joke is a little bitter sweetness, a tear lurking in every guffaw.

The tale is told in the paneled, black and white world of Buster (Danica Rosengren) and Charlie (Garrett Hanson), the two main characters in the nationally syndicated comic strip Gallows Humor. Every day these two creations (a wackier Abbot and Costello, a wittier Keystone Cops, a grimmer Bert and Ernie) go about inventing laughably horrific ways of offing each other but frequently pause in their shenanigans to comment on the doings of “God”. God, in this case, is their cartoonist, Calvin Davis (Matt Dial), a talented artist but bumbling recluse, still emotionally destitute years after....“The Big Thing”. Calvin is rather upset after having been sic’d upon by drama’s favorite rat terrier, inoperable cancer. He has only six months in which to get his affairs in order, and no one to see him through the end, except for his new acquaintance Maggie (Alison Mahoney) an acerbic kindergarten teacher and life long fan of his work. Can Calvin forge one true friendship after a lifetime of disengagement? Will Buster and Charlie manage to cheer their creator even in the face of their own cession of being? And will we ever find out what Calvin keeps in that Folgers Coffee canister, the lone artifact of “The Big Thing”.

Sonheim shows exceptional skill at creating all sorts of “best bits” of humor both in the the outlandish world of the creations and in the familiar story of the lonely comedian trying to get a date. What needs a bit of work is the linking of joke to joke, of steering the sketches of Buster and Charlie and conversations of Calvin and Maggie from one to another. The story doesn’t have to make sense but audiences all ways like clues to keep their bearings in the murky waters of “Who are these wags who keep teasing Calvin?” or “Why does Maggie have an armful of folders with her at all times?” or “What’s the grim reaper doing here, hitting our hero with the sunday edition?”. Fair, the director, has articulated the story very cleverly on Nick Raef’s panel set but sometimes disrupts the sight lines of the audience; we can’t all of us pass this paper around. The whole show has a cinematic feeling to it (one of those weird big budget indie films that mix live action with hand drawn animation). Some scenes, like the written conversation that is telegraphed between Calvin’s and Maggie's apartments, or the various driving sequences beg on bended knee to be placed on celluloid, but the spirit of the play lives on the live-wire, endlessly inventive interactions with the audience and the hoovering up of our laughter by the excellent cast.

Dial takes a classicist approach to Calvin: his primary color is awkward but like any artist he can find a thousand shades and flavor to suit a line or mood. He is sometimes not as physically present as he could be (though this may be character nervousness in the face of upcoming social interaction) but by the play’s end he finds both serenity and strength in his voice and being. Mahoney gives Maggie an arsenal of lively quirks: a half dozen selections of mocking smile, a score of double takes of varying intensity, and one well used sense of empathy, with which she grapples herself to her scene partner with hoops of steel. Her Maggie is alive and shining, and a better rendering of the romantic comedy heroine that we’ve seen in many a long year.

However, much as this critic may admire the fine tuned performances of the cartoonist and the teacher, it is Rosengren and Hanson who grab the show two fisted and dash off, tittering all the while. These are two performances brim full of energy: he elastic, she buoyant. Hansen bounds about the stage, doubling as both the proud bumbler Charlie and as Calvin’s personification of the Grim Reaper (with huge rubber skeleton hands; watching him handle a cigarette could be a night of entertainment all to itself). Rosengren is equally jubilant but slightly more grounded, in speech and expression. But the real glory of this pair is the seriousness brought to their characters. It would be as easy as winking to make this pair campy, overextended cartoons but thanks to Sonheims’s script and Rosengren and Hanson’s skills these characters become fully fleshed people, intimately connected to each other and their audience. Buster carries quite the torch for her co-actor, and her efforts to illuminate her feelings to him, and pain at getting scorched in the process, are paralleled by the fussy Charlie’s desire to keep a stiff upper lip and professional stance as their creators days wane and they themselves face an uncertain future. Calvin’s griefs are moving enough but, without seeing a single strip of the eponymous comic it is Buster and Charlie who we fear for, and grieve the most.

It would be impossible to brand any moment the funniest scene in the play but if I were to try I would highlight the point when, in a moment of idle fantasy, Calvin conjures up Maggie as a phone-fornication operator. But, naturally for a comedian, she does not describe her attire or his attractiveness but how much she laughs at his jokes. As fun as it is too watch Mahoney slyly shape depictions of mirth, and Dial to nervously lick his lips and ask “How hard are you laughing right now?”, the scene is funny because it reflects on all of us. The jokes we tell are often the tendrils of connection we put out into the stream to hook the interest of another, we use humor as an index to find how much were worth. I for one can think of no better friend, or lover, than one I can make laugh, truly and fully. That is Sonheims (and by extension his casts) great gift; to have given us a story about understanding and using humor in the direst circumstances. The play is founded on the cornerstone of comedy: it’s funny ‘cause it’s true.

* Subtitle lovingly lifted from Terry Pratchett. In dog latin it reads: Fear Not the Reaper

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