Laughing His Way On Stage

Posted on 12 August 2011

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Carl Reiner’s story of an artist becoming an actor-and vice versa.

By Courtney M. Holbrook

A lot of people want to be stars. They want to see their name in lights and their picture on the cover of Vanity Fair. But what about the people who want to become artists?

“Enter Laughing: the Musical,” is the story of David, a young man from the Bronx during the Depression who wants to be a star. After auditioning for a play, he realizes that he, in fact, wants to be an artist.

Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor presents “Enter Laughing: the Musical” from August 9 to September 4, with preview performances August 9 to 12. Directed by Stuart Ross, the show originally ran Off-Broadway at the York Theatre, to positive reviews. Now, the company has returned, with a few cast changes, and is ready for an East End audience.

“The York stage was tiny, and the Bay Street Theatre proscenium stage allows us to do different things with physical comedy,” said Erick Devine, who plays the stage manager, Pike. “The script is still there, but we’re able to keep things interesting.”

With a book by Joseph Stein, the writer for “Fiddler On The Roof,” the cast has a lot of help in keeping things interesting. Carl Reiner, the screenwriter of “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Twelve” and “Thirteen,” wrote the semi-autobiographical novel which inspired the musical and a movie in the ‘60s.

Much of the joy of “Enter Laughing” comes from its coming-of-age story. At first glance, the show can seem “like a vehicle for one actor, but it’s the entire cast — the way my character interacts with everyone — that makes this show come alive,” said Josh Grisetti, who plays David.

David’s journey from gawky — and horny — would-be star to artist is a relatable one. Beyond the terrors of the audition process, “Enter Laughing” is the story of trying to be an actor — and all the insanity that comes with it.

“I think anyone can relate to David,” Grisetti said. “As actors, we remember those beginning thoughts about why we wanted to go into this business in the first place.”

What can appear clichéd becomes bitingly real with the 14-member supporting cast, which fleshes out David’s story. David’s father and mother, played by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law,” would rather he be a pharmacist. David’s best friend, Marvin, played by Eric Mann, wants a part of David’s possible celebrity. And while David toils at his job at a machine shop, his boss, Mr. Forman, played by Ray DeMattis, serves as the “dose of reality about life,” according to DeMattis.

“When you’re an actor, you get used to people just assuming you’re dabbling in the business,” Devine said. “When you tell people you’re an actor, they tell you about how they did a play in high school. A lot of people — parents, friends — don’t see it as a legitimate profession.”

But the struggle to make acting an art does not just occur in the arguments between parents and children. There are also the struggles between actors and other actors, directors and stage managers. Much of these internal battles are displayed in David’s interactions with Angela, played by Kate Shindle, and Harrison Marlowe, played by Richard Kind of “The Producers” and “Spin City.” Marlowe is David’s acting teacher and the director of his first play, “The Strange Fate of the Mattress.” Angela is the “star” of the show, and cannot figure out why she hasn’t ascended the Broadway stage.

“Angela thinks she’s Greta Garbo,” said Shindle. “She thinks she’s the ultimate stage actress, but she’s really not.”

Angela is the classic theatre presence — the stage diva; Shindle noted that finding the artist beneath the cliché kept the character interesting. Despite Angela’s over-the-top attitude, she does “care about her art. The best part of this role was finding these layers in her through her interactions with David. She’s more than a cartoon.”

Shindle was one of the new additions to the cast. Adjusting to a show where many of the actors had already performed together was “wildly intimidating.” But thanks to the “supportive cast,” Shindle had “no time to be neurotic. I just had to jump right in.”

Despite the seemingly serious subject matter of artistic passion, the show’s strongest link to audience pull is simple — it’s funny. DeMattis said after years of comedy performances, he had yet to see as strong an audience reaction as they received in “Enter Laughing.”

“People just don’t stop laughing,” DeMattis said. “And that’s because of the script and the director, Stuart Ross. It’s unbelievable, but thanks to Reiner’s book, our job as actors was so much easier. We’ve got the script — Ross added this fantastic physical comedy.”

When the final show within the show begins, “Enter Laughing” has gone into full-blown farce. Gerry McIntyre, who plays many characters in the musical, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Don Darwin, noted that the “intensely fast-paced nature of the comedy just keeps you tuned in.”

Many in the cast noted Grisetti’s performance as the center of the show. For Grisetti, comedy has always been his theatrical choice.

“Even when I try to work in drama, everyone thinks I’m adding comic undertones,” Grisetti said. “That’s just the way my mind and body communicates.”

And in keeping with the over-the-top humor of “Enter Laughing,” Grisetti worried about audience reaction in the East End. After all, “families will love it,” he said. “But I’m really not attractive enough to bring in the artistic, young gay crowd that lives out here. So, I’m hoping for families.”

When “Enter Laughing: the Musical” holds its opening night on Saturday, the cast hopes they will laugh and enjoy the show. But, perhaps they’ll see something they can identify with — the story of growing up and finding the passion in a career.

“People come to theatre to be engaged, not just to laugh at mugging and stupid stuff,” Shindle said. “And with “Enter Laughing,” they’ll be engaged, they’ll care about these characters. But they’ll laugh while that’s happening.”

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