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CurtainUp DC  Report: June 1998
The Hill

by Les Gutman

June DC Report Topics
Dead Funny,  by Terry Johnson
A Report on Sweet Bird of Youth, by Tennessee Williams
Web pages mentioned in this report

When we say "The Hill" in DC, we mean the one with the Capitol dome at its peak. Although there are a lot of people there who make us laugh, the reference above is to only one funny man, and he's never been elected to public office. It's the late Benny Hill who is the centerpiece of the play reviewed below. 
Review: Dead Funny
No false advertising here. Dead Funny is funny -- very funny.

In its natural state, "funny" is not a condition open to debate. A perfect joke, for instance, lands no matter who delivers it. People who have no sense of humor still laugh at it. It can be translated into other languages without ill effect.

I make this observation because Dead Funny is a adult British comedy, and I confess I don't find any universality in that brand of humor. Since the play is about dead comics, particularly British ones, and especially the quintessential Benny Hill, I might seem an unlikely person to be caught laughing aloud. Oops. There are those who are more partial to Benny Hill and his cohorts in British comedy might get more out of Dead Funny than I did. However, Terry Johnson has filled it with humor that's good enough andunderscored it with a sardonic story that's thoughtful enough to transcend being pigeonholed as strictly for daffy Britophiles to enjoy. (It had a long, successful run in the West End a few seasons ago; this is its U.S. premiere.

The play centers on a group known as the Dead Funny Society, dedicated to waxing nostalgic about dead comics and their sketches. The time is Spring 1992 and Benny Hill has just died; the place is the living room of the current head of the Society, Richard (Bruce Nelson). Although the membership seems to be dwindling, a hardcore group consisting of Nick (Brian McMonagle) and his wife, Lisa (Rhea Seehorn), and an oversized clown of a man, Brian (Nick Olcott).

Were there nothing else, Dead Funny would be deadly boring in the Colonies. But Terry Johnson had something else in mind, and director Grover Gardner had one of Woolly Mammoth's comic pros to help him pull it off. Although Richard tries hard to forget, he has a wife, Eleanor (Naomi Jacobson). Eleanor couldn't possibly be less interested in her husband's obsession. To her, its no laughing matter, nor is Richard's indifference to her obsession: having a baby. Eleanor is the functional equivalent of a perplexed football widow. Her tragi-comic existence floats in the gambol.

Nelson is a terrific comedian, with good timing and sharp instincts. McMonagle and Seehorn are as zany as anyone could ask them to be. And Olcott is thoroughly comfortable as the brunt of jokes and invested throughout with the greatest humanity. But it is Jacobson who commandeers the show. From her vain but hysterical efforts to use self-help videos to enhance Richard's intimacy, to her incredulous hovering as her husband conducts the all-important business of the Society, Jacobson establishes Eleanor as the one who may lose the battle but will win the war. It's a masterful and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Anne Gibson has adorned the home Richard and Eleanor share with the counterpoints of their dissimilar lives: Richard's photos and other memorabilia of the late great comedians overlay Eleanor's fussy cottage-nest. Natasha Djukic's costumes likewise telegraph the characters' personalities, and she has obvious fun playing Benny Hill dress-up for the memorial service Richard and friends have planned.

The play is paced briskly, flagging only when it overemphasizes the nostalgia. It possesses the kind of coincidence that only seems possible in comedy, the kind in which the seeming absence of a lock on the front door becomes an essential element. Without it, we couldn't watch two marriages simultaneously crumble and still be laughing.
by Terry Johnson 
with Naomi Jacobson, Bruce Nelson, Nick Olcott, Brian McGonagle and Rhea Seehorn 
Directed by Grover Gardner 
Set Design: Anne Gibson 
Costume Design: Natasha Vuchurovich Djukic 
Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows 
Sound Design: Scott Burgess 
Woolly Mammoth, 1401 Church Street NW (202) 393-3939 
June 3 - 28, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman
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Shakespeare on the Bayou? Michael Kahn Takes on Sweet Bird of Youth
For aficionados of Tennessee Williams, the Shakespeare Theatre's current production of one his "lesser" plays, Sweet Bird of Youth, is a must-see. It represents a collaboration between two major interpreters of Williams, director Michael Kahn and Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the fading actress Alexandra Del Lago.

Kahn directed Ashley in her Tony-nominated performance in the 1975 Broadway Revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He also directed the original Camino Real, and has directed The Glass Menagerie with Tom Hulce, Melissa Gilbert and Teresa Wright, A Streetcar Named Desire with Shirley Knight and Glenn Close and ten Williams one-acts. For her part, the Louisiana native Ashley has also appeared off-Broadway in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, The Red Devil Battery Sign and Suddenly, Last Summer. She met Williams in 1961 when her then-husband James Farentino was doing Night of the Iguana. They became lifelong friends when Williams worked with her and Kahn on the Cat revival in 1975. He expressed the desire that she play Alexandra, a dream she has now fulfilled in poetic form.

Sweet Bird of Youth continues at The Shakespeare Theatre through July 19. Box office is (202) 393 - 2700. Further information at the theater's website, linked below.
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
 Shakespeare Theatre website:

©June 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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