Jane Milmore, Billy Van Zandt,and the cast of Silent Laughter(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jane Milmore, Billy Van Zandt,
and the cast of Silent Laughter
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The title Silent Laughter refers to the silent films that Billy Van Zandt emulates in a no-speech period piece he's written and directed and in which he appears as a poor soul hoping to win the affections of a rich man's sweet daughter, played by co-author Jane Milmore. As it happens, the moniker may not be the best Van Zandt and Milmore could have chosen for their obvious labor of love, since it also suggests an unfortunate reality: If there is laughter emanating from the audience here, most of it is silent.

That's because nothing especially funny happens during the two acts, which the playwrights-pretending-to-be-screenwriters would like attendees to experience as an old-time two-reeler. To help them achieve their ambitious goal, set designer Dana Kenn and costumer Cynthia Nordstrom have created a black, white, and gray environment further enhanced by black, white, and gray projections of appropriately evocative Manhattan locales (and one Maginot Line locale).

Despite the care given to the overall look of the production, the various scenes -- in which the cast members carefully mouth words that are projected as supertitles -- rise only to the level of mild entertainment. Van Zandt appropriates his own first name for his character Billy, a bumbling bum in the best tradition of the flickers made during the second and third decades of the last century. While Ralph Ringstad oom-pahs an organ through ditties like "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," Billy finds himself in a series of minor predicaments during the more innocent years of 1917 and 1918, when silent films were increasingly becoming America's favorite popular pastime.

In the first section of Silent Laughter, which ends just before World War I begins, Billy and his unnamed pal (Glenn Jones) get into a couple of scrapes on Manhattan thoroughfares, seek work in Brewster Thickwad III's assembly line, and fend off the mustachioed villain Lionel Drippinwithit (John Gregorio), who's also after Ruth's dainty hand. Later, Billy is in the French trenches pining for Ruth, who's pining for him, while Lionel sees that letters from both aren't getting through to either. Abruptly, Billy is back in little old New York, a civilian once more, and the parted lovers discover themselves to be -- well, to be just what you'd expect in this sort of light-hearted endeavor.

Disappointingly, though, while honoring the best silent-movie traditions and aspiring to equal them, Van Zandt doesn't measure up to those who were best at it. As writer, director, star, and producer, he's walking in the funny footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at their giddy peak. He does get the milieu, recognizes the stereotypical set-pieces of the genre. He knows about the lower-class fellas scrapping along, the moneybags in their well-appointed homes, the hand-rubbing schemers, and the moony young lovers. He remembers that Keystone Kop-like chases were a staple of these movies, as were pie-throwing sequences.

Studiously, Van Zandt and Milmore insert references to famous silent film tropes. (One thing they shouldn't have inserted is the Charleston, which didn't begin driving dancers into high-kicking frenzies until 1924.) Van Zandt and Milmore also get in a few cute gags. In one, a man carrying a cake minces across the stage and a title card declares, "A fruitcake goes by." Also, during the Great War section, Billy and his sidekick are dispatched to save a Private Ryan, which makes their assignment the second saving-Private-Ryan joke currently on the boards. (The other is in Tim Robbins's Embedded.)

Ken Jennings and Billy Van Zandt in Silent Laughter(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Ken Jennings and Billy Van Zandt in Silent Laughter
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
What Van Zandt misses while hitting these points is the inspired eccentricity of the central hapless hero that the great comedians incorporated in their work. Moviegoers flocked to see Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Ben Turpin because those unforgettable funny men developed and refined a specific character, each quirky in a very noticeable way but always lovable. Wisely, Van Zandt has not tried to mimic any of the seminal figures -- The Little Tramp, for instance -- but opted instead to create his own. Unfortunately, Billy isn't very interesting; he's just a vaguely likeable schlemiel who is lifted off the ground a few times by balloons. Maybe Van Zandt has chosen to play a generic character with the goal of remaining true to film history; if so, he needn't have been that respectful. Bill Irwin can add a new clown to the commedia dell'arte line, so Van Zandt should be allowed to introduce a new silent screen star to what might have seemed like a closed book.

Appearing with Van Zandt, Milmore, Glenn Jones, and John Gregorio as typical types are Megan Byrne, Ed Carlo, James Darrah, Jim Fitzpatrick, Ken Jennings, and Art Neill. They're all adept at the exaggerated expressions -- the glowers, the simpers, the open-mouthed gasps -- that silent film performers cultivated to compensate for what they knew wouldn't be heard. And Van Zandt has directed them to maximize the silly walks, the arch period postures, the haughty tilt of the snob's nose.

Silent Laughter is produced by Carolyn Rossi Copeland; she notes in her program bio that she was also a producer of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which "made Broadway history as the first musical to be re-written and re-cast while still running on Broadway." (Copeland doesn't note that, with each rewrite, The Scarlet Pimpernel got successively worse.) Anyway, Silent Laughter probably won't make history.