He who laughs last...

The Man Who Laughs

By Martin Mulhern (based on a novel by Victor Hugo)
Directed by Paul Wells
The Thirteenth Street Repertory Company
50 W. 13th St. (675-6677)
Non-union production (closes March 14th)
Review by Scott Vogel

It was one of those evenings when - vexed and disheartened by the spectacle of Act One - the audience collectively bolted for the lobby, perhaps seeking comfort in the dazed expressions of fellow survivors. As in the case of most disasters, people thought nothing of approaching complete strangers in hopes of finding some explanation. For a time, amid the chaos and confusion, all seemed lost. Finally a voice of reason appeared, in the person of a hoary old gentleman, a quiet soul who'd obviously braved many a storm in his long career as a theatre attendee. "Well," he said, "one must support one's friends, right?" This seemed to have a chastening effect on the crowd. For without another word, the entire demoralized band of well-wishers crept back into the auditorium for Act Two.

Now, support of one's friends may take several forms. The most common form, of course, is that of a two-dollar bouquet presented amid frantic chants of "good work, GOOD WORK!" in the dressing room. Friends of the Thirteenth Street Rep, however - this being no time for frivolousness -- ought to offer the company some cold, hard advice, especially with regard to future projects.

1) Avoid producing plays which attempt to "modernize" obscure 19th-century novels no one but the playwright has ever read. The Man Who Laughs, for example. This 1869 fantasia is strictly for comp. lit. grads only, its plot following the exploits of Gwynplaine, a disfigured young man whose mouth is contorted into a perpetual grin. (Sidepoint: even if you are a talented and compelling actor like Robert Steffen, do not allow the application of facial make-up to approximate said grin. The results will invariably be nothing to grin about.) For reasons known only to him, Mr. Mulhern transplanted the novel's action from 17th-century England to California and environs circa 1967-83. While this change of locale allowed the very musical cast to sing nifty choral versions of "Ring My Bell" and "You Spin Me (Like a Record Baby)" during set changes (Jennifer Marburger was in particularly fine voice), the conceit had few other payoffs.

2) Do not be swayed by the fact that a competent director has signed on. Paul Wells, for example. As metteur en scene, Mr. Wells had many tricks in his pocket, including a keen eye for using actors as props and purveyors of sound effects. (James Ferazzi was a quite believable cappuccino machine; Vincent Saia a convincing fireplace, especially when muttering "crackle, crackle"; and Pam Wilterdink a ferocious caged leopard - Eartha Kitt fans take note.) Mr. Wells had less success at turning his actors into living, breathing characters, Homo the dog (Kurt Roinestad) being a marginal exception.

3) Do allow greater contributions by your design team. Pilar Newton and Douglas Filomena, for example. Once Gwynplaine and his blind sister Dea (Ms. Marburger, this time in an unfortunate blue tutu) are rescued by Ursus, a kindly philosopher (Mr. Ferazzi), their destinies are changed forever. "You," he proudly announces, "are now going to live the life of a poor travelling entertainer!" Ms. Newton's colorfully surreal backdrop -- a collage framed by a giant smiling mouth -- perfectly evoked the world of the decadent carny. Mr. Filomena's lighting was subtle and dignified, and therefore belonged to another play altogether.

Note to advice-givers: Do make sure the foregoing comments are offered in a spirit of friendship, not maliciously, as a worthwhile alternative to post- show ass-kissing. After all, who needs another two-dollar bouquet, anyway?

Box Score:

Writing: 0

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Sets: 1

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1998 Scott Vogel