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Almost Funny

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The power of a single gesture to define character and situation is amazing. In Chicago Theatre Company's Morning, Noon and Night there's a sudden, shocked audience-wide intake of breath when Miss Gussie Black throws her grandson's books in the stove. Yet we laughed merrily at her purchase of rat poison, just as we laughed at every hint (italicized with an organ sting) that she poisoned her husband and seven or eight other people. Murder can be all in good fun, it seems, but when you start burning books--well, that's serious. I don't know what this says about us as an audience or a society, but there you have it.

And there you have the problem with Morning, Noon and Night. Tossing a book marks the moment when the play sheds its comic skin--and the audience along with it. We had taken Miss Gussie at amusing face value and eagerly awaited her next exploit: a phony religious trance, an effort to convince her grandson Ben Marvin that he's really a prophet, a session in the kitchen preparing some of that stew her husband so enjoyed. But then she begins to cause real harm--book burning is only the beginning--and the play turns into a melodrama. The audience doesn't know what to do--literally doesn't know, as the company obviously understood when it provided an applause track. Without it, we wouldn't have known the play had ended. The play that began the evening never does.

Perhaps Ted Shine meant his 1964 work to be a dark piece punctuated with laughter, not the "hilarious comedy" the company is promoting. Perhaps the playwright didn't make his intentions clear, or perhaps director Luther Goins didn't understand them. My best guess is that Shine--with his weakness for shtick and for stock comic characters--gave a poor road map of his dramatic path, and Goins ended up lost. Whatever the case, the energetic fun of the first two acts collapses with a thud after intermission.

Morning, Noon and Night seems serviceable at first, borrowing liberally from other plays but in interesting ways. The first half is like a weirdly antic version of A Streetcar Named Desire: a disruptive visitor arrives, creating tension between the man and woman of the house, which devolves into competition between the visitor and the woman of the house for the attentions of the man. Standing in here for the fragile Blanche DuBois is the holy terror Miss Gussie; the man is replaced by a 14-year-old boy, a sort of mini Stanley; and the competition focuses not on sex but on determining the boy's future. Miss Gussie wants Ben Marvin to be a wealthy preacher who will support her; his aunt Ida Ray wants him to keep up with his studies and find a secular way out of their hardscrab ble home in the wonderfully named Earth, Texas.

Or maybe the play offers a fresh take on those comedies about guests who just won't leave and the havoc they wreak. Miss Gussie's early efforts to drive a wedge between Ida Ray and Ben Marvin are in that tradition: conflict is elevated by exaggeration to the level of a sport. "Be nice to me," Miss Gussie warns Ben Marvin, "or be barred eternally from heaven!"

A slightly different brand of broad humor animates the character of Sister Sue Willie Hollis, an evangelist with her own agenda for the boy. With her exaggerated bosom and rear and her double entendres, which confuse passion for the Lord with an itch for Ben Marvin, Sister Sue would be at home in any Marx Brothers movie.

When Ben Marvin appears to experience one of the trances in which Miss Gussie specializes, even speaking in tongues ("Yabba-dabbadoo!"), the question of the play shifts from "How will Ida Ray and Ben Marvin get Miss Gussie to go home and leave them in peace?" to "Who's zooming who?" Will Ben Marvin succeed in paying Miss Gussie back in her own coin? Or will age and stealth, in the words of the T-shirt, beat youth and enthusiasm anytime? Intermission.

When we return, Morning, Noon and Night has mysteriously become Sweeney Todd: a revenge tragedy told with dark humor, and not even much of that. It's very funny when Sweeney kills people and bakes them into pies, but we understand from the beginning that it's gallows humor. We learn right away about the tragedy that turned Sweeney into a killer and a cannibal; we're able to sympathize with him, but we wouldn't mistake him for our best friend. If Shine or Goins or both had somehow let us know in the first half of the play that Miss Gussie has painful scores to settle, we would have withheld judgment as we laughed. As it is we like Miss Gussie; we give her our trust, and then she betrays us.

Goins has a fine touch with actors, as demonstrated by the exceptional

performance he evokes from 14-year-old James Randle as Ben Marvin.

Despite some opening-night stumbles, Randle caught every nuance--comic and pathetic--of a teenage boy beset by people whose agendas for him don't match one another's, much less his own. Cynthia Maddox as Miss Gussie offers sure ballast with her strong voice, good comic timing, and a flair for being funniest when she's most intolerable. She can't make persuasive Miss Gussie's change from the engine of a farce to the protagonist of a tragedy, but no one could. Randle and Maddox are ably supported by Sandra Watson, who infuses the poorly drawn Ida Ray with truthful warmth, and Debra Neal, a worthy Margaret Dumont substitute as Sister Sue.

All of them, though, have been directed at a single decibel level: every conflict in this conflict-filled play takes place at a shout. This may be director Goins's effort to conceal weaknesses in the dialogue, which occasionally abandons natural speech in favor of speechifying: "You are selfish and unreasonable." Performance style varies from one actor to the next, from farce to naturalism to somewhere in between, but that's inevitable when no one's sure what the play is really about. Peter Chatman's music and Rob C. Martin's set are both perfectly evocative of time and place, the early 1960s in rural Texas.

Dying is easy, they say, and comedy is hard. With its effort to make serial murder the subject of belly laughs, Morning, Noon and Night proves the truth of both sides of that equation.

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