Too often, comedy in the New York theater comes as a surprise. The really funny writers, it sometimes seems, have gone elsewhere. But maybe they’re not all working for Jon Stewart, judging by two hilarious nights I’ve had lately. At the start ofThe Drowsy Chaperone, a man sits in a chair and puts on an old cast recording, which sounds like approximately the lamest idea ever. But as he listens, performers materialize and stage a daffy show within the show. You may have heard that this Toronto import is a “love letter to musical theater,” which is true, or that it appeals only to musical buffs, which is not. The clichés parodied here are hardly unique to theater. It helps, too, that the production marks another triumph for the limber, funny Sutton Foster and an exquisite Broadway-directing debut by choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
But mainly its appeal lies in Bob Martin, who plays Man in Chair with the easy offhandedness and perfect timing that seem to be dispensed with Canadian passports. Throughout the show, he offers commentary on the old musical and how its comic romance relates to his own lonely life. “This scene couldn’t be more ridiculous,” he tells us, curling up with a juice box.
Anytime a performer addresses the crowd this way, a play becomes interactive. But a comedy this funny becomes social. Unlike at some quiet little drama, you can hear how everyone else in the room is responding to each gag and punch line. And because this is live theater, Martin’s performance changes in a thousand little ways depending on when we laugh, and how. Comedy has a special theatricality, one that a humorless Broadway loses. Delightfully, this show exploits every bit of it.
There’s more to laughter than a vibrant communal glow, of course. Martin McDonagh’s brutal terrorism comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the gory play about an Irish militant seeking to avenge his pet cat’s death, continues to draw laughs at the Lyceum. But from the first sight of feline brains, they’re mixed with half-groans, nervous giggles, and, at the last twist of the plot, actual screams of surprise.
In this sense, the audience could not be more different from the characters. Living in the war zone of nineties Ireland, they have grown inured to violence, even of the Tarantino variety. “It’s incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland,” somebody says at a particularly bloody juncture. The line gets one of the night’s biggest laughs, not because it’s delightful but because its total lack of proportion is so staggering. It deftly reveals how conflict has warped these people, knocked their moral compasses askew. Sure, Broadway needs comedy to amuse us; McDonagh shows that we also need it because, done right, it’s a uniquely potent way to indict militancy, power, false patriotism—a deeply human response to the dehumanizing forces of the world.
Even with all these laughs in the air, Broadway still offers plenty that’s ponderous and dull. In Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s series of long monologues, which would be sleepy in any case, are rendered comatose. Ralph Fiennes fails to project the charisma of a huckster and holy man recalling his travels, and the great Cherry Jones is all wrong for his wife—I never thought I’d see an audience eager for her to depart. As the oily manager, Ian McDiarmid briefly captivates, but the only triumph belongs to director Jonathan Kent, who succeeds in making a drab, tedious play as drab and tedious as possible.
The Drowsy Chaperone
Lyrics by Lisa Lambert, music by Greg Morrison, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Marquis Theatre.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
By Martin McDonagh. Lyceum Theatre.
By Brian Friel. Booth Theatre.