It's All Very Festive: A Review of "Easy Laughter"

Nearly twenty-five years after its inscription, Robert Shearman’s “Easy Laughter” made its New York debut this past weekend, premiering Thursday night at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory.

A political satire set in an alternate totalitarian state, “Easy Laughter” thrusts the audience into the living room of the Simpson family, an uber-creepy, nuclear, Stepfordesque bunch whose propriety and traditions of festivity are founded upon a history of racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. Wavering between suppression and hysteria, the characters prepare for Christtide, the annual holiday celebrating Christ, his ‘infinite compassion,’ and the recent extermination of the Jews.

It’s light, at first, playing with the classic dominant husband/submissive wife dynamic as Patsy and Dennis decide whether Patsy should be permitted to drink just a half-glass, no, a “half of a half-glass” of whiskey, while Dennis guzzles them down because, after all, he works “so very hard.”

By the second act, the gig is up, and the audience witnesses atrocities that are brushed aside, even encouraged, in the sake of social custom.

Shearman’s script manipulates us with comedy, seamlessly transitioning between silly and offensive, causing the audience to examine their reactions, their laughter, and leave the play questioning whether it was funny at all.

And yes, it was. Maria Swisher’s performance as Patsy is over-the-top hilarious, while Michael Broadhurst’s Dennis is understated with a devilish flair. Shearman isn’t tricking the audience by making his characters say funny things about serious things, but rather making a connection, showing us how easily the situation can get out of hand, how blind faith and unexamined norms can mutate over generations to the point of implosion.

Is it OK to laugh at a comedic scene about a husband limiting his wife’s access to alcohol? What if she were stoned to death for defying him?

Some might find the connection between those questions a stretch. “Easy Laughter” suggests otherwise. It begs us to extend our imagination to the far reaches of possibility, not to mention recent history. What if? And then what if? What then?

Certainly “Easy Laughter” as political theatre translates to the current landscape (see any news story), but does a satire written twenty-five years ago offend us, truly upset us, when we’re bombarded daily by the absurdity of our present reality? When real-life senseless violence, religious intolerance, and political farce seep through every media outlet, are we desensitized to the make-believe kind?

Some may feel current productions of “Easy Laughter” could go further to spark audience reaction, perhaps by taking a more nuanced or abstract approach to controversial scenes. Others would disagree, finding this play challenging enough as is. Interpretation is a spectrum, and that’s why “Easy Laughter” is fantastic. It’s controversial and conversational. It prompts you and prods you. How do you react?

Director Stephen Massaro invites the conversation readily into his production with brilliant utilization of space. The theatre is small, with stark white walls. The audience, level with the performers, surrounds the stage on three sides. This arrangement lends itself to an intimacy and transparency that is almost too much to bear. Not only are the actors at arm’s reach, but one sits face-to-face with the audience across the stage. This adds further apprehension to whether the comedy comes easily or uneasily. “Is it OK to laugh if they’re not laughing?” “How could he laugh at that?” “Am I the only one who finds this appalling?

In this way, Dirt [Contained]’s production becomes participatory, making “Easy Laughter” worthy of this generation. In today’s environment of transparency, every Tweet, post, and utterance is accounted for, retweeted, judged. Theatre must keep up, sparking connections on all planes, jumping through the fourth wall and back again. Conversation surrounding a play must extend into the past, present, and future, and “Easy Laughter” certainly does. It begs us to question our own sense of comedy and compare it amongst our friends’. How will you laugh?

“Easy Laughter” is playing through this weekend at the Alchemical Theatre Laboratory at 104 West 14th Street, New York City. Showtimes are as follows: April 30th-May 10th Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. For tickets and more information, visit Dirt [Contained].

Ginny LevyComment