Sweet and frothy as an egg cream, Enter Laughing: The Musical opened tonight as part of the York Theatre’s 50th anniversary season. Loosely based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel as well as Joseph Stein’s play of the same name, it charts the initial baby steps to stardom of David Kolowitz. Disinterested in his mother’s goal of getting him into pharmacy school, David jumps at the opportunity to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor by responding to an ad placed by the Marlowe Free Theatre. While he doesn’t lack passion, his knowledge of theater is so scant that he doesn’t know the difference between dialogue and stage directions. Despite this dearth of experience or apparent talent, the hormone driven lad attracts the attention of leading lady Angela and lands the role. The complications that evolve from his big break go beyond the challenge of learning his lines before opening night.
We are plunged into David’s world from the outset, with scenery by James Morgan built to resemble a typical backstage area. Set pieces that suggest the Kolowitz’s kitchen, the Marlowe Theatre, the repair shop where David currently works and more are wheeled in by the supporting players to keep up the frenetic pace. Clever costuming by Tyler M. Holland and wigs by Kenneth Griffin help embellish the atmosphere and provide additional comic moments. The lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz and sound by Julian Evans regularize the more far-fetched moments.
Taking a stylistic queue from New York circa 1938, director Stuart Ross ratchets up the screwball elements. The entire 2 1/2 hours are filled with high energy. David’s active imagination often colors what we see. The comedy is so big and broad you can practically hear the rimshots. Fortunately the flexible cast handles the pratfalls and double takes with ease. Those in smaller roles also fill out the musical numbers written by Stan Daniels and played by a trio (Phil Reno, Perry Cavari and Michael Kuennen) on stage left under Mr. Reno’s musical direction. Simple choreography which echoes that of MGM’s grand days is provided by Jennifer Paulson-Lee. Every word is crisply pronounced, the better to appreciate the good humor. A few of the highlights like The Man I Can Love and The Butler’s Song are included just for laughs rather than plot development. For those unfamiliar with the early days of Hollywood, a glossary of the famous people incorporated in the lyrics is included in the program.
Several of the actors sing with trilling tones, though there are an equal number who rhythmically speak the lyrics Rex Harrison style. In the former camp, Chris Dwan imbues young David with a warm voice, a rubbery face, and buckets of boyish charm. He is particularly well supported by the women in David’s orbit: Allie Trimm who brings just enough feistiness to the role of Wanda his loyal girlfriend, Alison Fraser whose sly style takes Mother beyond the passive aggressive stereotype, Dana Costello who provides the alluring Miss B with Carole Lombard’s wit and knowing flirtiness, and Farah Alvin resembling the best of Madeline Kahn in her portrayal of the sexually charged Angela. The men (Raji Ahsan, Ray DeMattis, Magnes Jarmo, Robert Picardo, and Joe Veale) are more two dimensional as if to bolster the concept that David is a leading man in the making. Theatrical treasure David Schramm rounds out the cast as the way over the top Marlowe.
Though short on plot, this return engagement of Enter Laughing is long on heart, smiles, and quality song styling. A lighthearted escape from these thornier times, the piece also incorporates a lovely message that each generation has something to teach the other. It plays through June 9 at Saint Peter’s Church, 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue. Tickets are priced with accessibility in mind [$67.50 ((evenings), $72.50 (matinees), $25 (under 35 years of age), $20 (students and senior rush]. To purchase and for more information visit https://yorktheatre.org.
Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson
On a soundstage, a talented production team is preparing to shoot an AT&T commercial featuring beloved Luke Wilson. The creative concept is to drop red gumballs around the star to symbolize all of Verizon’s dropped calls. Despite a lack of time to test the hastily put-together rig, prop lead Rob is able to toss the small projectiles just shy of Luke’s shoulder and the first few takes go smoothly. Then a case of nerves sets in and a few of the hard objects hit Luke squarely on the head. The actor sees stars; the director —award-winning documentarian Errol Morris — sees excitement and orders the crew to deliberately aim for the performer on the next take.
This is the set-up of the aptly named Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, which is based on true events. Though the Directors Guild of America takes set safety very seriously, sadly there are occasional incidents of a director demanding a dangerous shot, as happened in this case. Rob Ackerman accurately has commercial Assistant Director, Alice, threaten to report Morris to the Guild. The script also provides enough background to realistically make her vulnerable to manipulation. It’s a creative stand-in for any project on which a concerned would-be whistleblower has instead been made complicit through intimidation. If only the playwright had trusted his audience to get his very clear and impactful message. Instead, after a lively and thought-provoking 55 minutes, he burdens the additional 20 with outright lectures on broader issues and political topics ranging from gender discrimination to Nazis. It’s an unnecessary departure from the previous territory that mars an otherwise engaging production.
First time director, famed playwright Theresa Rebeck, does an imaginative job of bringing us deep inside the physical set of the commercial and the mind set of each participant. The results are visually stimulating and often laugh-out-loud funny. The assorted screens that are employed by Morris for playback at the shoot are also used to show us the crew’s previous experiences that have brought them to this critical moment. (Yana Birkukova provides the ideal video design.) The nearly all-white set designed by Christopher and Justin Swader shows off these projections to great effect. Emphasis is achieved by Mary Ellen Stebbin’s well-placed lighting, which often shifts to a befitting green-screen green. The look is completed by the essential craft service table. Costumes designed by Tricia Barsamian will make any production pro feel right at home. All-important clever props are provided by Addison Heeren.
The Cast of Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson; Photo by Carol Rosegg
As a former prop person, Rob Ackerman makes the prop man, also named Rob, his spokesperson. George Hampe does a fabulous job of growing increasingly manic as character Rob struggles to remain the voice of reason and the closest thing we get to a hero. With a get-on-with-it gruffness, Dean Nolen is well cast as his boss and seasoned rigger, Ken. Reyna De Courcy is less successful at maintaining an appropriate emotional build in the role of their assistant, Jenny, becoming akin to a cartoon character with jerky motions and high-pitched yelps of displeasure. With enough charm and swagger, Jonathan Sale could easily be Luke Wilson’s deliberately pudgy body double. It’s less easy to know how well David Wohl impersonates Errol Morris. The part is written in one obnoxious note, though the theater vet certainly manifests a typical ego-driven artist. In the toughest role, Ann Harada swings rightly between assuredness and fear as Alice, but she struggles to differentiate the other small parts she takes on in memory and flashback.
Ackerman’s love of television production and those who strive to keep it creative and truthful shines through despite a dip in the ending. It is easy to see why both Luke Wilson and Errol Morris have given the project their blessing. With a little reworking of the last section, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson has the makings of insightful modern satire. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. It plays through July 6, 2019, in the Mezzanine Theater at at A.R.T./ New York Theatre (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25 for union card holders, $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating. For purchasing and additional information, visit TheWorkingTheater.org or call the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111.