Theater Review: Reston Community Players Perform 'Laughing Stock'

By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 7, 2009

Charles Morey is the longtime artistic director of a theater company in Salt Lake City. The theater, apparently, is a home of sorts for him, and he seems to see the troupe of actors, musicians, creative staff and stage technicians as an extended family.

Morey also has written a few plays, and the one that might be closest to his heart is "Laughing Stock," a comic look at a small New England summer stock company that performs in a 200-year-old barn. It's as light as bubbles and currently floating off a local stage, courtesy of the Reston Community Players.

You might expect "Laughing Stock" to be full of inside theater jokes and references and that it might be terribly self-indulgent. But although Morey has put in plenty of inside jokes, he structures them to be fully accessible to the "civilians" (or non-theater folks) in the audience. The characters and situations are fairly universal, despite the setting, and his play gets lots of laughs. Morey promotes the sentimental idea that theater folk band together as a family unit as they get plays up and running, and he lets us pretend we're in on the jokes and the warmth.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Morey liberally "borrows" much of his plot and structure from other behind-the-scenes comedies, notably "Noises Off" and "Moon Over Buffalo," as well as "The Dresser," all of which take the audience backstage as things go awry onstage. And it takes him almost three hours to get us through the jokes and situations.

But laughs are laughs, even if they come from familiar material. None of this would work without a perfect blend of comic timing and the development of characters who become more than caricatures. With direction by Karen Schlumpf, the Reston troupe mostly gets it right. Timing? Check. Character development? Check. Laughs? Check, check, check.

For a comedy that gets raucous at times, it begins on an unusually calm note. Joe Richardson, as director Gordon Page, is showing the old barn where they perform to an actor, played by Stephen Smith, whom he hopes to lure from New York for the theater's summer season. It's February, and the old barn is dark and cold. For eight minutes, an eternity in comedy time, the two have a quiet conversation on a dimly lit set that grounds us in the romantic notion of life in the theater as a challenging but romantic grind. It's Morey's way of setting up the situations that will unfold.

Schlumpf bravely resists the notion to satisfy an audience expecting big laughs as soon as the curtain goes up. She allows for the gentle pace the scene requires, and the laughs come from clever dialogue rather than high-energy shtick.

Richardson and Adrienne Showker, as production assistant Sarah McKay, remain fairly grounded, the sensible center of the ragtag band of zanies whirling about them as things at the theater start getting crazy. Showker has moments requiring fairly tender acting and gets through them superbly.

The old barn is a repertory theater company, meaning it rotates performances of various plays using the same actors. So we get to see fairly sizable chunks of "Charley's Aunt," "Hamlet" and a version of "Dracula" that the Gordon Page character has created by condensing characters.

Of course, things go terribly wrong during performances, and the audience knows that some actors will forget which show is actually on the stage. The funniest moments come in the "Dracula" segment, as Jim Bumgardner plays an old actor who has trouble adapting to the condensed version, forgetting dialogue and losing track of who is who onstage.

And an unexpected "visitor" almost steals the show as Schlumpf lets her actors go all out for laughs. It's a high-wire act to make this kind of broad and frenetic comedy pay off, but nobody falls off.

"Laughing Stock" continues through May 16, performed by the Reston Community Players at CenterStage of the Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Rd. Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with a Sunday matinee this weekend at 2:20 p.m. For tickets, call 703-476-4500 or visit http://www.rcp-tix.com. For information, visit http://www.restonplayers.org.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company