So Funny I Forgot To Laugh

Learning to take direction: Will Ashwood (dressed as jackass, right) in 'Merton
Act One, Too, Ltd.

I remember watching my dad howling over a copy of The Thurber Carnival, occasionally reading passages aloud for the family's amusement. Perhaps he was just in a better spot to relate to, for example, the quixotic daydreaming of everyman Walter Mitty, but when I picked up James Thurber's volume, it seemed more amusing than hysterical.

Comedy is, of course, subjective, redefined by each generation, and ultimately mysterious. George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's Merton of the Movies was considered edgy and uproarious in 1922, and director Randy Winkler's straight-ahead staging of it at Theatre in the Round had the crowd laughing, so maybe my stone-faced reaction was, you know, just me.

Based on a serialized novel by Harry Leon Wilson, the play follows lamb-like Midwesterner Merton Gill (Will Ashwood) as he travels to Hollywood in a bid for silver screen immortality. If the yokel-in-Tinseltown premise seems hackneyed, note that the play, a skewering of both the nascent silent film industry and ah-shucks bumpkinism is an archetype of the genre.

In Hollywood, Merton is a starving artist with all the starvation and none of the artistry until he lands the lead in a cowboy spoof. He thinks, however, that he's playing a dramatic role, which is what makes him so funny to the studio. Ashwood, mouth often agape and brimming with cute, provincial idealism, captures Merton's starry-eyed naïveté, even as he overdoes his clumsiness. In one scene, he complains to his director (a shrewd Aaron Bennett) about a costar who's not taking the movie "seriously," making his plea while saddled with ridiculously oversized spurs. He can barely walk, and his pathetic cluelessness is one of the show's few genuinely affecting scenes.

Most of the show, though, is emotionally empty, and time's winged chariot has trampled its satiric piquancy. This is partly because the show's targets--folks like Pearl White and Erich von Stroheim--are not the kind of high-profile targets you're likely to find on SNL these days. Not that I laugh at that, either.


Time has been similarly uncharitable to about half the punch lines in Woody Allen's Play it Again, Sam, but that still leaves plenty of foolproof one-liners. Allan Felix (Terry Flynn) is a late-'60s Mitty, a film critic with an imaginary friend in Humphrey Bogart (Jim Lemke). "We spent the whole two weeks in bed," says soon-to-be-divorced Allan of his honeymoon in Mexico, "I had dysentery." This is the sort of stuff your tipsy uncle might repeat over Thanksgiving dinner and score with, and Starting Gate Productions coaxes laughs at regular intervals.

They could have coaxed more with a quicker pace. All that's here is jokes, and the next one ought to be in midstream as the chuckles subside from the last. Instead, the dialogue is run at a conversational pace, which quells the infectious potential of the material.

Granted, the material itself has some quelling potential of its own. In 1969 (the show was adapted for film in 1972, with Herbert Ross directing), the Broadway crowd presumably held enough amused disdain for liberated hippie chicks and Ray Bolger-on-hash rock dancing to make the bits about nymphomaniacs and discotheques inherently funny. Today, these bits are as corny as Bob Hope. And it's impossible to stomach the really antiquated stuff, such as an exchange between Allan and Linda, his love interest and his best friend's wife, about rape (Allan: "Odds are you'll never get raped." Linda, wistfully: "Yeah, not with my luck.").

The show's other unavoidable obstacle is the shadow cast by the Woody persona. In his notes, director Jim Detmar explains that he chose to surrender to Woody's "autobiographical clutches," and Flynn often plays Allan like an impression. Which is tough, because much of the author's comedy depends on his expressive face and awkward physicality, his God-given funny-lookingness. When Flynn started overdoing Woody's hyperkinesia, I found myself thinking not of the original but of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids star Rick Moranis, who did a pretty good Woody on SCTV. And if you start pining for Rick Moranis, something must be wrong.

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