Curtain Call

El Sid: Edwin Strout (center) captures Sid Caesar's salad days in Neil Simon's 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor'
Rich Ryan

At the beginning of this month 41-year-old local playwright Todd Irvine died from diabetes-related complications. An obituary in the Star Tribune included a good summary of the writer's professional career, which in the past two years included a production of The Primitive. This Cheap Theatre-staged play followed two nameless characters as they bridge time together, falling in love while evolving out of simple organisms on the face of a still-cooling earth. His was a varied and incomplete résumé--the Strib rightly called him an "emerging voice"--and the obit did a fine job of summarizing his short career.

But I am a man who understands the world through anecdote, and the Strib obit contained few of these. So I called Joel Sass, artistic director of the Mary Worth Theatre Company, which staged two of Irvine's marvelously odd monologues in its production of Tabloid Dreams last season. In one, a prostitute finds herself unexpectedly enrolled in fifth grade, where she discovers she feels strangely comfortable. In the second, the Antichrist joins a 12-step program, desperately trying to assert control over his destructive destiny. Sass commented on Irvine's sense of humor, which was wild and unexpected from a man who often seemed quite subdued, and then suggested I speak to actor and director Natalie Diem, who played the prostitute in the Tabloid Dreams monologue and worked extensively with Irvine. After reflecting on Irvine for a few days, Diem sent me some of her memories in e-mail form, which are as follows:

    I have a vivid memory of Todd bringing me a family photo and saying, 'Guess which one is me?' Given he had only one brother, this should have been easy: He was the one with the red hair. And the one who looked a little too pensive for a seven-year-old boy. He smiled and said, 'See, even then I was more interested in watching what was going on around me.' I laughed and teased him because he looked so unhappy in the picture and he assured me he wasn't, he was just taking everything in.

    We became friends and did several projects together after that, including work with Cheap Theatre, workshops of his scripts at the Playwrights' Center, and a few Fringe shows. I was able to work with him as a director, assistant director, and actor. He was always quiet and insightful in rehearsals. Then he started to fall asleep--particularly during work on his Fringe show After the Yellow Brick Road. I started to worry that I was doing something wrong. I'd stop to ask him a question and he'd be sound asleep. I don't think it's generally a good sign to have the playwright asleep in the corner during rehearsal. He would wake up and blush and giggle and tell us things looked great! I'd ask if we were boring him and he would assure me that we were not. Weeks later we got together and he was beaming. He told me had just found out he had sleep apnea and that's why he had been falling asleep--not because he was bored. (As if there had been some question...)

So there, two anecdotes: one about a contemplative child, one about a dozing playwright. It's not enough to sum up a life, I know, but they do present a richer portrait than the Post-it note that is the résumé. I offer them because Todd Irvine was a local playwright, and a good playwright, and much loved, and to omit any note of his passing in this space would be unforgivable.


In the meanwhile, I have begun to think that Zach Curtis has developed a scheme to make certain that not a week goes by without some mention of him in the press. To this end, most recently, he is simultaneously performing as the title character in Lloyd's Prayer at the Illusion Theatre and has directed Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor for the Pig's Eye Theatre Company. I will not discuss Curtis here (nyah, nyah), but will instead focus on one of his performers, Edwin Strout. Wry-grinned and square-bodied, Strout is one of the workingest actors in the Twin Cities, often in Curtis-related projects, where lately he has been playing an awful lot of characters who are both bemused and bullying.

In Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Strout plays Max Prince, a character based on Sid Caesar, who employed a young Neil Simon as a gag writer. Max Prince must be the ne plus ultra of baffled, bullying characters: Strout depicts him as drug-addled and given to astonishing furies. The story is set during the blacklists of the Fifties, and in one scene Prince receives word of the latest misdeeds of Senator Joe McCarthy. Strout offers up a Technicolor slow burn, his face blushing various shades of red, which is witnessed by his terrified employees--the cast here includes local comedians Ari Hoptman and Alex Cole, who both get their share of laugh lines. But Strout is dizzyingly funny, especially for somebody who spends much of the play tearing the armrests from chairs and punching holes in the walls. That aggression may come in handy, too: Zach Curtis is a hulk among actors, and he's going to be mad when he finds out Strout stole his press.

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