“Laughter is a tonic,” asserts one of the characters in Laughing Wild, a dyspeptic Christopher Durang comedy. “You cry, you cry alone. You laugh – and you cry alone later.”
At the equally entertaining and unnerving production at 21ten Theatre, you’ll laugh a lot. And you might be tempted to cry while sitting amid the rest of the audience. Such are the undercurrents of tension, melancholy and desperation that drive this peculiar onslaught of madcap humor, like shockwaves deep below the ocean pushing a tsunami.
The character who makes that statement, an unnamed woman played by Brooke Totman, is someone you suspect of crying alone quite often. She’s not just having a bad day – getting into kerfuffles in the grocery store, in a cab, etc., etc. – she makes references to spending time in a mental hospital (which we believe) and attending parties at Andy Warhol’s place (uh…maybe).
From the outset, Totman gives her a nervous energy and the sense of something tightly wound unraveling at increasing speed. Fragility collides with frustration, guiltiness with defensiveness, and they all combine into a feedback loop of overreaction. Using precision to convey chaos, Totman serves up Teri Garr’s screwball charm with an edge of menace as she recounts disjointed moments from a life as a sort of deranged Goldilocks, never able to find the right bed or porridge or can of tuna.
The play’s first act consists of Totman’s wild monologue, followed by a more measured but no less pressurized one performed by the ever-wonderful Darius Pierce, who takes his own artful approach to the timing and velocity of thought and speech – more reflective and orderly, yet still reflecting a churning dissatisfaction with life. “I took a bit of Valium before I came out here and it is not calming me down a bit,” he says at one point, biting down quickly on the last syllables before moving on, contained as ever.
The two monologues echo each other, not just in action – the woman tells of accosting a man in the grocery store for taking too long to choose a can of tuna; in the man’s speech we hear his version of the incident – but in emotion. They’re thick with frustration at an irrational world seemingly drunk on both religion and mass entertainment (“God is silent on the Holocaust but inserts himself into the Tony Awards?” the man muses. “That doesn’t seem right to me.”) A yearning for transformation, or at least escape, hangs in the air.
Act II, in which the two speakers meet and act out possible alternative narratives or reconciliations, is somehow even more fractured, elliptical and odd – though it lacks the hurtling, headlong energy of the monologues. Maybe the problem is that, in interacting, they have to get ever so slightly out of their own heads. And their heads – as made vivid by Durang’s uproarious writing and these two terrific performances – are a wildly entertaining place to be.
- Laughing Wild continues through Oct. 29 at 21ten Theatre (the former Shoebox Theatre space), 2110 S.E 10th Ave., Portland. Ticket an schedule information here.