“Laughing Wild” Touches Nerves in DTF’s Outdoor Return
It is easy to see why Dina Janis chose “Laughing Wild” to open Dorset Theatre Festival’s first outdoor season at the Southern Vermont Arts Center starting with the title of this 1987 Christopher Durang comedy which is taken from a Beckett quote, “Laughing wild amidst severest woe.” It’s a comedy, you will have fun and perhaps your wild laughter will be especially significant because you so strongly identify with this pair of Manhattan neurotics who no longer seem like a “type.” Everyone has had a panicked altercation in a grocery store in the past year and a half, not just three-time residents of Creedmoor like the character of The Woman played by Mary Bacon in the opening monologue of this play.
It was always a mainstream satire on the impossibility of living together by America’s most popular, active, comic playwright but it played off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizons, and perhaps the anger and anxiety of the pair of New Yorkers could be ascribed to a very particular urban experience. The play was not just how hard it is to live as a community but more particularly it seemed to be how hard it was to live in The City with professional ambitions, urban crowding and blight and let’s not forget – AIDS. 34 years later on a sylvan artist’s campus, surrounded by nature’s beauty and gathered together after a year and a half apart…the well-heeled, comfortable, Vermont audience had no hesitation barking with laughter at these two painfully funny characters who can’t find peace in civilization.
The play opens with Mary Bacon’s The Woman stepping through the billowing red curtain and quickly assessing the situation, “Oh, it’s all such a mess.” She is an aggressive, overly cheerful companion for the first portion of the evening who will recruit the audience’s sympathies to her violent, sociopathic viewpoint. It starts with her standing behind a man in the grocery aisle waiting for him to move so she can reach a can of tuna fish. He doesn’t move, she weeps silently and eventually brings a can of tuna fish down on his head, knocking him to the ground and screaming at him “Would you kindly move asshole???” Mary Bacon in her chipper delivery leads us through her aggrieved thought process hilariously to the point where we can be simultaneously appalled and delighted by her confrontations and opinions with all she offers us in the next half hour.
The man who she assaulted in the grocery store is the other character in the show and performs the next monologue. The Man is played by Dan Butler who was so great in DTF’s “Slow Food” in 2019. He has taken a personality workshop and works hard to see the positive when something bad or negative happens. Like when he’s hit over the head with a can of tuna fish. This approach doesn’t always work out. “If her life-since birth-had been explained to me, I could probably have made some sense out of her action and how she got there. But even with that knowledge-which, I didn’t have-it was my head she was hitting, and it’s just so unfair.”
Butler is a wonderfully physical actor and we can enjoy his affirmations as he circles the stage and pushes the negative out of his body. His grinning Infant of Prague bounces around the stage but he can also be brought up short, nearly doubled over with pain when he decides to reveal himself in his monologue. Bacon and Butler do a great job with their scene together where Butler appears as this embodiment of Christ on the Sally Jesse Raphael show.
Director Jade King Carroll has crafted a most satisfying show that like quite a bit of this summer’s outdoor offerings presented many challenges for performers and audiences alike. It was a blustery night on the mountain affecting the sound and throwing the curtain which actually knocked over The Man’s podium at one point. The set with sharp, defining pieces was by You-Shin Chen, perfect 80s costumes by Rodrigo Munoz and lighting by Yuki Nakase Link which has some inspired effects using the trees surrounding the stage late in the play. Special Mention needs to be made, especially for these outdoor productions on challenging nights to the stage manager Olivia Lousi Tree Plath. This review is so late because our two previously scheduled visits were cancelled due to rain.
Butler’s character is the more rational and in the original production was played by Durang. He takes a more overtly political tact when he outs himself to the audience and rails against the Reagan administration’s threats to science and the environment. His takedown on Reagan’s cabinet could not more accurately describe the most recent former presidents, “like naming Typhoid Mary the Secretary of Health and Welfare.” A chill falls over the evening as we consider, have we grown at all? Have we moved backward? Do we look back at Reagan and say, “Oh, we didn’t know how good we had it?”
The play closes as each of the monologues does with a breathing exercise. “Everyone breathe in… and out. And in… and out.”