It's no surprise that a show titled Laugh, now making its world premiere at Studio Theatre, is intended as a comedy. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley marries the Old West with early Hollywood in this slapstick play that relies heavily on language, and veers in a much different direction from her previous dark comedies, such as Crimes of the Heart and True Stories. And while it does bring plenty of chuckles, the hard laughs never really come.
The story takes place in the Old West in the early '20s and revolves around Mabel, who has had some challenging times of late. A dynamite accident at a gold mine has left her wealthy but orphaned, and she's sent to live with an unscrupulous aunt, who calls upon her own nephew to milk Mabel out of her fortune. But just as many great theatrical love stories begin, the fake romance turns real and the courtship is full of romance, a passion for movies, and laughs as the couple shares a series of mix-ups, mishaps, and crazy adventures on their way to Hollywood to fulfill their dreams of making it famous in moving pictures.
Helen Cespedes makes a charming Mabel, maturing from a wide-eyed hapless child to a commanding star of the screen in perfect fashion. As nephew Roscoe, Creed Garnicks handles being the comic victim to perfection. Whether a pratfall or pie to the face, Garnicks summons the silent-film stars of yesteryear and delivers one great facial expression after another. Together, the two have real chemistry and make for an enjoyable comic pairing.
Following old Hollywood tradition, four actors take on various parts in the play, and create a quirky assortment of memorable characters. Evan Zes, Jacob Ming-Trent, Emily Townley, and Felicia Curry all more than meet the challenge of soliciting guffaws from their often over-the-top roles, with Curry especially a standout as the gap-toothed Miss Bee Sunshine, Roscoe’s one-time fiancée, whose unattractive looks and ridiculous yellow dress are played for laugh after laugh.
Director David Schweizer pays tribute to the classic Hollywood style in his staging and pace of the piece, though sometimes he misses the mark, making for action that either feels a bit too frenzied or drags on for too long. Costume designer Frank Labovitz's creations enhance the feel of the time period offering up brightly colored garments and some fun, flapper details. Special mention must also be given to Wayne Barker, who provided the old-time feel of being a patron in a silent movie with his piano accompaniment and dry narration throughout. Scenic designer Andromache Chalfant conforms the stage to meet the demands of the fast-paced show, consolidating set pieces down to the most necessary elements while still creating a rich environment in which to set the scenes.
Henley undoubtedly has an ear for comedy, but Laugh doesn't have the same bite that her previous works have offered. At times the play comes off as a tad too silly and overwrought. Still, there's a lot of potential, and with a little fine tuning, this is a work that could find its Hollywood ending on Broadway.