Why is comedy so difficult?

Photo by Carl S. Brandon

Jim Lowe

This summer has seen some stellar musical comedy in Vermont. But some of the nonmusical comedy hasn’t been so successful. In fact, two productions by excellent professional theaters proved real duds, and another one was nearly wrecked — all by overly zealous comic performances.

Part of the problem is that theater folk get mixed up about what kind of comedy they are doing — and, without the playwright’s permission, they mix it all up, often with disastrous results.

At one end of the spectrum is comedy based on wit, situations and characters. The actors play it as if it weren’t comedy, and the script delivers the humor. The classic example was Weston Playhouse’s excellent production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” expertly directed by Kent Paul. The humanity of the characters delivered the comedy — and the pathos — in spades.

A much more intimate example is another Weston success, “Buyer & Cellar,” Jonathan Tolins’ charming fantasy about a young actor employed by Barbra Steisand. Director Steve Stettler let the story and the characters deliver the humor with just the right touch.

Physical comedy is easily the biggest problem for theaters — knowing when to stop. Neither Lost Nation Theater’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” Mark Brown’s five-actor comic take on the Jules Verne classic, nor Dorset Theatre Festival’s “Baskerville,” Ken Ludwig on Sherlock Holmes, again for five actors, were successful. That was somewhat surprising, as both companies have had successes previously with this type of comedy.

Both productions suffered from the same basic problem: If it’s funny for two seconds, it’ll be funny for two minutes. If it was funny once, it’ll be for 40 times. If the audience is laughing — or at least someone is — they’re loving it, so keep going until they stop. Although some folks like this — Three Stooges fans — many quickly become bored. In fact, both productions had folks either walking out or leaving at intermission.

Physical comedy needs to be quick and crisp, never wallowing. Both productions’ directors could have used a weekend studying Marx Brothers’ movies — those guys knew what physical comedy was all about.

The same problem — overkill — marred the otherwise excellent Highland Center-Northern Stage production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Greensboro. Because of a lack of comic discipline, Shakespeare’s brilliant wit was overpowered by a need for laughs. Fortunately, the fairies were magical — and very funny.

This summer, however, proved excellent for musical theater, with two splendid examples. In a more traditional vein was Weston Playhouse’s “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s classic about the con man being defeated by love. The excellent music aside, director Malcolm Ewen’s deft direction delivered the comedy of human foibles by encouraging rich, rather than silly, characterizations. It was delightful.

More unusual was Opera North’s stylish “La belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen),” a bawdy and beautiful late-19th-century operetta by Jacques Offenbach, spoofing the seduction of Helen of Troy that resulted in the Trojan Wars. Stage director Andreas Hager brilliantly and imaginatively took the action to the decadent 1920s, and employed both physical and visual comedy, but always making it subservient to the wit. Because of this disciplined approach, the audience was laughing delightedly between the gorgeous arias.

It has been said that comedy is much more difficult than drama, and this summer seems to support that. Fortunately, we have some theater in Vermont that truly understands comedy.

Jim Lowe is theater and music critic, and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.