At first blush, The Pumpkin Pie Show appears to be a sort of avant-gardist variety show, but what emerges is an exceptionally well-accessorized one-man entertainment. Yes, there are musicians playing behind and between Clay McLeod Chapman's caustic, exhilarating monologues--Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst, creating cunning carnival melodies on a variety of instruments--and even a second actor, Max Moore, whose performance as a ventriloquist's dummy in a piece titled "Chatterbox" is at least as fully realized and affecting as any of Chapman's characterizations. But Chapman is the creator and principal performer of these four disparate monologues, and it is from his ecstatic energy and wicked intelligence that the show's successes, and occasional failures, derive.
Just to get it out of the way: The Pumpkin Pie Show is naughty. In the first piece, "Johnny Pumpkinseed," a hormonal farm boy pays tribute to his favorite solo sex act; in "Chatterbox," the relationship between dummy and puppeteer is described in a series of metaphors that escalate from sentimental to romantic and beyond. But Chapman's monologues are not really about sex (or murder or drunkenness, or any of the other red-letter topics that rear their heads), nor are they pointedly "controversial" in the way that some shows without much to say throw empty shockers at their audience.
Chapman has much to say. The characters to whom he gives voice may be unlikely, even ludicrous (that boy does what out in the fields?), but they are the author/performer's collective mouthpiece for a decidedly serious meditation on the world. Only in the second monologue of the evening, the utterly engrossing and unsettling "River Trip", does loneliness turn into madness; but all of Chapman's characters are trying to make sense of their isolation, their abandonment, their sheer terror of the unknown.
Heavy stuff, especially for a show featuring a possessive puppet and a whiskey-guzzling rodeo clown. Chapman's gift is to turn the silly and the grotesque into the beautiful and the real. His writing is poetic and gutsy, and if his acting is not always note perfect, his stage presence is almost overwhelming. With Chapman hollering exuberantly into the mic, with Camp and Hearst rocking on accordion and drums, we can hardly fail to pay attention.
"Good evening, and welcome to the Canasta Club," says the man in the rumpled shirt with the 1950s-style emcee's microphone. "I'm Ralphie Fenster."
Played by Cyrus Lane in the first of many roles, Fenster is a creepy, odious nightclub owner--when he brings on the lovely singer Francesca King (Daniela Lama) he gives her a drooling pat on the rear--one of several coarse, 1940s archetypes that populate the lighthearted and lightheaded world of Last Laugh. Directed by Wolfgang Mueller and written by him and his cast, Last Laugh occasionally manages to invest its unapologetically thin storyline, in which the wisecracking vaudevillian Ramoli Brothers are elevated from Schenectady hacks to Hollywood stars, with the giddy spirit of the Marx Brothers.
In place is a fair amount of playful dialogue: "I'll teach you to kiss my girl," says Rick, the handsome Ramoli brother (Brandon Firla, looking like the very model of dapper, mid-century suave) as he waves a threatening fist. "Thanks, but I don't need the lessons," answers Benny, the funny Ramoli brother.
Benny is played by Kurt Firla, who, though a winning presence on stage, too often mars his bits with tentative, self-indulgent comic timing. And it's not just him; proper timing gets away from the cast throughout much of the performance. Only sporadically does Mueller manage to create the sense of unmitigated zaniness that one got from the Marxes or Abbot and Costello, that unstoppable freight train of comic energy on which all the "ba-da-bing" gags and ludicrous non sequiturs are sold.
But there are several inspired moments when the cast members hit their marks. Lane plays a cavalcade of supporting roles as cartoon sketches of Hollywood types, including one tepid Edward G. Robinson spoof. Lama pulls off a nice My Girl Friday type tough-talking dame in her bantering phone conversations with the absent Rick. And, in the play's funniest sequence, the three male leads run through an exuberant, floor-level dance number, leaping over each other like playful salamanders.
Also remarkable are several musical numbers which Mueller smartly includes to cleanse the palate between comic riffs. Lane offers a breathy yet powerful "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Rick sings a gently enthusiastic "Everyone Says I Love You" from the Marxes' Animal Crackers.
A character named Supreme (E. Patric) is a record producer and label executive, a starmaker and a powerful man, which we can tell because he smokes cigars and drinks dark liquor. In his stable is MC Manifest (Khmit), a talented, successful rapper torn between his artistic soul (represented by the "spoken word joints" where he's been spending his spare time, places where poets of political conscience lay down serious rhymes) and his addiction to fame and money (represented by Supreme, who tells Manifest that he should stick to rapping about guns and girls, since more self-conscious themes are "soft").
But Manifest isn't torn--not really. He and Supreme both seem to know from the beginning of their conversation (A Message is structured as a long dialogue in Supreme's office, with a series of interjected flashbacks) that art will win out over the empty promises of fame and money. Since that's pretty clear to the audience as well, the show doesn't gather a lot of narrative force. Though there is powerful entertainment in the raps and spoken word performances that dot the show, mostly it is a matter of waiting for the inevitable moment when Manifest storms out of the office, leaving the devil (i.e., Supreme) defeated and crying over his cigars.