The FSU/ Asolo Conservatory is now serving up a two scoops of absurdist comedy. The double-billed buffoonery includes Christopher Durang’s “The Actor’s Nightmare and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound.” Saying both plays “break the fourth wall” is a tepid understatement. It’s more like they dynamite it into a million little pieces.
Christopher Durang’s “The Actor’s Nightmare” is the first one-act play. The title says it all. What would an actor’s nightmare be? Probably to be forced to act in a play you hadn’t prepared for—and to do so in your underwear. And that’s exactly what happens to a hapless accountant (Scott Kuiper).
In pure dream logic, a stage manager (Danielle Renella) informs the poor man that the leading man is sick and he’ll have to go on stage. (He takes off his pants to get them pressed, and that’s the last we see of them.) From here, he bounces like a pinball from “Private Lives” to “Hamlet” to “Waiting for Lefty,” to “Endgame”—the Beckett play staged in garbage cans. The stage manager sometimes answers when he hollers “Line!”—and sometimes doesn’t. In one scene, he gibbers with word salad Shakespeare in a mishmash of every quotable quote every high school kid memorizes, with the pledge of allegiance thrown in. By the time he gets to “A Man for All Seasons,” he’s done for. He’s Sir Thomas More and, according to history and the logic of the play, he gets his head cut off. According to the illogic of Durang’s play, that’s what happens. So it goes.
In Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound,” two self-important theater critics endure the latest, tired retread of Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap.” (Various characters trapped in a mansion with an unidentified killer.) Rudely talking during the performance, Moon (Brett Mack) bloviates with middlebrow blather while Birdboot (Brandon Maldonado) gets in a few pithy one-liners. Their minds wander: Moon resents his second-string status; Birdboot’s cheating on his wife with a long line of ambitious, young actresses—and kicks into instant outrage when Moon hints of impropriety. Things take a turn when Birdboot answers the persistently ringing phone on stage—and gets sucked right into the play, quickly followed by Moon. (Both are inevitably caught in Stoppard’s meta-fictional mousetrap—but I won’t spoil it.)
Durang stuffed his play with theatrical in-jokes. (The audience’s actors and acting students howled at the appropriately moments.) Hilarious stuff, even if you miss the references. This is basically a cartoon and could easily feature Yosemite Sam. Stoppard’s hijinks are more highbrow—with his characteristic wordplay and a list of “Don’ts” for critics thrown in for good measure.
Greg Leaming directs this controlled chaos with a Monty Python tone with perhaps a dash of Mel Brooks.
The entire second year student acting class shows their stuff here; most play several roles. Some highlights …
In Durang’s bad dream, Kuiper creates a great comic performance as the fish-out-of-water accountant. The joke’s on him and he goes with it. As his fellow actors, Jillian Courtney, Mike Perez, Jillian Courtney and others live to give him a hard time. As the stage-manager, Renella does, too. They all act like they want to cut his head off.
In the “Mousetrap” knockoff, Mack and Maldonado make a great team as the blathering or philandering critics, respectively. Jessie Taylor holds her arms aloft and twirls like a dancer as the lady of the house. She’s the perfect picture of a young actress saying, “Look at me!” (Her character, not the actor.) Kelly Elizabeth Smith is hilarious as her romantic rival with perpetual tennis racket in hand. Rob Glauz is funny as the feckless cad with multiple dalliances. (Or is that Birdboot?) Jacob Sherburn’s character hilariously turns a wheelchair into an attack device. Michael Fisher is a hoot as Inspector Hound, a know-nothing/know-it-all.
Becky Leigh’s costumes and Chris McVicker’s set design fit the comic tone of both plays. Their work looks true-to-life—but just a bit off.
These two off-center plays work great together. They share one big joke: The world of the stage isn’t safely separate from real life. You may be watching the play, thinking you’re safe and snug in the audience. But one false move and you’ll be in it. “The play pulled me right in,” as Birdboot might say.
But it’s not all absurdist fun; both plays also make fun of various targets. Stoppard and Durang mix generous helpings of satire with their surrealism. The result is a rapid-fire barrage of jokes, mockery and parody—and anything that gets a laugh. It’s a lot like sketch comedy. Come to think of it, what’s the difference between a short one-act comedy and a long comic sketch?
Whatever you call them, these short but silly playlets are a lot of laughs.
IF YOU GO
“The Actor’s Nightmare” and “The Real Inspector Hound” runs through Nov. 22, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org/conservatory for more information.