Story in purgatory
Based on the number of jokes I make in a given day vs. the number that actually make anyone laugh, I’d say great comedy must be hard to do.
In Brüka Theatre’s season-opener, Oh, Hell!, the actors aim for Icarian heights of complex funniness as they deal with variations on the question: “Are humans inherently good or bad?” But with any Icarian venture, most actors can only touch the sun for so long.
The show consists of two short plays. In Shel Silverstein’s The Devil and Billy Markum, directed by Mary Bennett, Scott Beers plays a janitor in scruffy coveralls, telling the tale of Billy Markum, a poor fool who keeps getting suckered into making deals with the devil. Beers gets progressively more wild-eyed as he mops under a heat-lamp-colored glow, sips from a flask and spins Seussian standard verse in a gravely, Tom Waits-impersonating-a-drunk-stadium-preacher voice. His lone listener, a harmonica player (Geoff Altrocchi), punctuates the story with bluesy phrasing, timed and delivered with enough attitude and exaggeration to extract a soft laugh track between the guffaws that Beers intermittently earns when he gathers all his energy into way-over-the-top, fire-and-brimstone punchlines.
The janitor and the musician keep the story moving like one of those narrators who bullshits eloquently from a barstool late at night as a crowd gathers. You can’t tell if he’s crazy or if he’s a reliable narrator, but his story is good enough that you don’t care.
In Bobby Gould in Hell, written by David Mamet and directed by Beers, Brian Barney plays the Interrogator, a brat who we know under other names from his horns and his top-dog position in Hell’s Oval Office.
Barney works to sustain an irritated, overworked Satan-figure who is deeply flawed and needs as much emotional support as any mortal. He hits a screeching high note several times, conjuring a campy, my-manhood-is-threatened urgency and an irritated, dripping-dry sarcasm.
Set designer Lew Zaumeyer’s minimal stage construction plants just enough clues to both plays’ settings as surreal workplaces to let the actors fill the space with their stories. As Bobby Gould, though, Zaumeyer struggles to find the right tone for a man who suddenly finds himself in Hell and tries to plead his way out. Over the course of the play, as the question of his innocence wavers, Gould’s conflicted, Everyman-type character doesn’t ever become real enough to relate to or to hold the story together.
Amy Ginder, as Gould’s dissed girlfriend, Glenna, gives a most convincing performance. She’s petulant and uncompromising, and she’s the one who comes closest to keeping the audience engaged in Gould’s plight: Was a good man? She also springs a secondary question: Who will end up getting the last word in Hell?
Every actor in the play finds a stride at least once. For Zaumeyer, it’s a quick switch to physical humor. For Alison Girard, as the Interrogator’s impish assistant, it involves exaggerated tea sipping when she gets a break from über-subservience and gets to call the shots for a minute.
But in between laughs, the story loses its grip on the audience, and it feels like we’re sitting around waiting for more.