Forget the rule of threes. Oh, it's comedy 101, I know, the essential building block of the ha ha, but most humorists stick to it with a workmanlike constancy. They tell a joke, tell it twice more, and then wander offstage to punch their time card and wash their hands, muttering, "Good enough for government work"--leaving behind a joke that still shows its ugly concrete and rebar foundation. Solid craft, yes, but where's the style?
I go for the comics with the non-Euclidean sensibilities, for whom the dull geometry of the rule of threes is not enough. Look at the serial yuksmanship of Ernie Kovacs, who in his long-running television show never saw a joke he couldn't relentlessly revise, finding infinite variations on the simplest of premises. In Kovacs's universe, entire rooms full of objects and furniture might burst into song in accompaniment to a mambo by Pérez Prado, or a woman in a bathtub might be besieged by everything from submarine periscopes to hands emerging from beneath the suds to wash her back. When Kovacs made his jokes, he built geodesic domes.
Kovacs's serial comic spirit can be found in The Elevator Play, currently at Bryant-Lake Bowl. "Three Actors," the play's program notes, "44 Characters. One Elevator. A Comedy." And that sums up the production about as well as anything I could say. The play's simple set is the interior of an elevator. The performers wander in as a variety of passengers, perform little comic bits, and hurry backstage for a quick costume change, only to appear a moment later on the same elevator as an entirely different character.
The actors in question are Kevin Pearson, Janelle Ranek, and Matthew Vaky. Pearson and Ranek have appeared previously at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in two similarly themed plays titled Yard Sale and Yard Sale 2000. In those shows, they played a series of characters wandering amid a random collection of junk at a backyard sale, improvising around whatever scattered items they happened to pick up, all of which had been provided by the audience. Matthew Vaky, meanwhile, has directed an adaptation of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, another humorist whose comedy never stopped at three but built upon itself, whether it involved the stacking of turtles or deluging one confounded boy with 500 hats.
The Elevator Play is an uneven piece, clumsy and rambling, offering one joke that falls flat for each one that works, but the advantage of comic serialism is that it functions cumulatively. For example, the three cast members return repeatedly as three nondescript characters with rain slickers and umbrellas, trapped in the elevator with a sound system that, for no clear reason, has begun to play nonsensical German lessons, which they blithely repeat. Each variation of this Ionescoesque routine, taken on its own, would be mildly amusing at best. But with each permutation, from German versions of the hokey pokey to full-blown dance numbers, the routine grows in hilarity. Likewise, Ranek returns to the elevator, again and again, in the character of a child whose sole form of entertainment, as far as we can tell, is pushing the buttons on the elevator and seeing how much food she can force in her mouth before reaching the next floor. In one instance, she slurps a freezing drink and then presses her hand to her forehead, squeaking with pain from a sudden cold headache. And then, obeying the peculiar geometry of this type of comedy, she presses the button to the next floor and tries it again.
Pearson and Ranek have an easy chemistry together. The first looks for all the world like an oversize, muscular ten-year-old, and his characters often have a child's peculiar enthusiasm and obsessions. In one sketch, while going up in the elevator, he rummages through his bag, producing a series of tools of mayhem, each of which he takes turns trying out, as though rehearsing a murder. He clasps a garrote as though he were choking someone, then clicks open a butterfly knife and practices stabbing with it. These are not practiced gestures, though. Instead, they are those of a boy who, having just spent a Sunday morning watching wrestling on television, is trying out sleeper holds on his younger brother. Opposite Ranek in another sketch, Pearson shows a similar juvenile flair, playing a braggart of a businessman who rambles on in the voice of a schoolyard boaster about his golf scores, his international business contacts, and his sports car.
Ranek switches back between straight man and comic foil with alarming speed, sometimes mid-scene. Many of the skits in the play draw from the same tired routines that sketch comedy seems to refer back to reflexively: A wacky character comes onto the stage and the remainder of the cast responds to his wackiness. I've never liked this labored routine, whose basic premise leaves the cast desperately pointing at the weirdness in its midst and whispering, "Look at the funny! The funny is right there!" But Ranek, in particular, has a way of turning this tired shtick around. In one instance, when she and Pearson are menaced on the elevator by a flasher, she stares at her attacker blithely and removes a half-dozen plastic rings from her pocket. She hands several to Pearson, and the two begin an impromptu game of ring toss. It's a fast gag--the whole of it takes no more than 30 seconds--and it works effortlessly, without anybody pointing fingers and telling me where to look if I want to see something funny.
Vaky is the flasher in this sequence, and, for most of the production, he seems a little out of place--an intruder into the cozy relationship between Pearson and Ranek. (In fact, several of the sketches find Vaky clothed in a Yard Sale T-shirt--which leaves the impression of someone who wears a Lynyrd Skynyrd sweatshirt to a Johnny Van Zant show and finds himself invited up onstage to play tambourine.) Vaky characters, such as a lubricious comedian, are the broadest and loudest--funny, yes, but they also display the most concrete and rebar.