By Tulis McCall
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down by Alan Hruska, now at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is one of those plays that sent me back to the script. I wanted to read the play to see if there was some glaring bit of information that would, upon resurfacing, pull the play together into a work that made sense. There was not
Actually, the first scene of this play is delightful and sounds a bit dated in a good way. Like an scene between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Joe Allworthy (Jayce Bartok) stops Cleo (Katya Campbell) mid-stride while she is walking to meet her beau George. The two engage in some excellent verbal jousting with a rhythm to it that made the characters sound like Brits. Add a dash of mystery and you have a scene that works – on paper.
The rest of the play matched my memory and did not fare so well. It is a series of scenes that do involve Cleo and Joe, but they appear to have been pulled out of a hat at random.
To wit: After the casual meeting, Joe and Cleo begin to see one another. They consider sleeping together in a very drawn out scene. Apparently they do because a baby is conceived and discussed at a French restaurant with blank menus. in a very drawn out scene. Baby Harry is born, misplaced, and found at the local hospital. In a very drawn – you get the picture…. An excellent Maury Ginsberg and Amy Hargreaves play the doctor and nurse as well as all the other characters who cross paths with Cleo and Joe.
Next up is a confession of infidelity, followed by same sex communication by the two couples involved. 10 years pass. Somehow Harry is old enough to go away to school. That evening a burglar pops in to steal money in the form of a wire transfer, or steal art, or at least give Cleo and Joe a feeling of being possibly dead which dovetails nicely with being possibly alive.
Another 10 years pass. The two are at their coastal Rhode Island home. A terminally ill neighbor comes to evacuate them from a storm they had no idea was on its way. Instead of evacuating the two make travel plans. Of course – exactly what I would do. Venice is the choice.
In Venice they are scammed by a fake Italian who wants to bed Cleo and offers up the tidbit that storm #2 is headed for Venice to drown it. KIDDING!!! He does clue them in on storm #3 that is headed for their coastal Rhode Island home.
Joe and Cleo return to Rhode Island – wouldn’t you? – where they end up fighting for buoy real estate and hoping for a rescue.
Please stop me if you see anything that makes sense or feels connected in any way, with the exception of the continual reference to life’s catastrophes that are forever lurking. The actors do their spectacular best, and one aches for them to have landed on this stage in this production. The writing is laconic and fails to engage the observer. Even that clever scene I read was completely un-clever when I saw it. Chris Eigeman’s direction is nearly as plodding as the dialogue. These actors are set adrift to fend for themselves. They are all skilled, but the best they can do in this production is keep their noses above the waterline and give it a good shot. This they do. Bravo to them.
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down (even the title has no meaning) ends up being a story of two people, about whom we don’t care, who get themselves into one situation after another in which we don’t believe. I am guessing that the author Alan Hruska was intending this to be a farce. Farce is meant to invade our tidy spaces between our ears. The good ones grab you by a body part and don’t let you go until you have been shaken and stirred repeatedly. Farce is meant to snatch sensibility out of your grasp and force you to drop into a situation unknown and a little dangerous. Farce dares you into saying, “Yes,” and makes no promises about the result. What we watched was farce-light. Watered down farce at best.
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down does little more than bewilder and disappoint.
LAUGH IT UP, STARE IT DOWN by Alan Hruska, Directed by Chris Eigeman
WITH Jayce Bartok, Katya Campbell, Maury Ginsberg and Amy Hargreaves
Produced by Red Horse Productions and RME Theatrical Group. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street. Through October 9.