By Courtney M. Holbrook
There are certain stereotypes about would-be actors that never seem to go away. For instance, they want to be famous — even if they don’t want to memorize their lines. They want to be loved — even if they’re working for the saddest production in small-town America. And, of course, they want to be seen as artists, receiving the respect owed to an “actoooor” of their stature. Because that’s how it should be spoken — emphasis on the “or.”
In “Enter Laughing: the Musical,” the word “actor” is bandied about as though it were the name of Jesus himself. Never has the “or” at the end of a word been elongated so well. For these characters, being an actor is a Christ-like occupation — even if they don’t really know what it entails.
“Enter Laughing,” which runs at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor until September 4, is the Depression-era story of David, a young man from the Bronx who decides he wants to be an actor. No, he hasn’t been inspired by Sophocles or Shakespeare — though he has a vague idea of what the latter may have written — David is inspired by a youthful libido and a knowledge that, should he become famous, girls will probably sleep with him.
However, there are set backs to David’s pursuit of stardom on Broadway. His parents want him to be a pharmacist. His boss, Mr. Foreman, wants him to wake up to the harsh realities of life. The play for which he auditions — “Fate is a Strange Mistress” — is not exactly ready for Broadway. And then, of course, there’s the tiny detail that David knows nothing about acting.
Although the story is familiar — coming of age meets theatrical in-jokes — the steady script, fetching song-and-dance routines and, most importantly, the impressive cast make for an evening that can only be described as delightful.
Based on the 1958 semi-autobiographical novel by Carl Reiner, “Enter Laughing” works well thanks to its understanding of the ridiculous — both in young men and the acting world. David is constantly desperate for girls — he can’t stop “undressing them” with his eyes. Moments such as David’s first audition — where he doesn’t realize one shouldn’t read cue lines — and first time on-stage — when stage fright takes hold with dizzying results — are captured with over-the-top hilarity.
The audience clearly appreciated these humorous ventures. But what made them so funny was not just the script or music — it was the cast. Many of the cast members were featured in the show’s original production Off-Broadway at the York Theatre. It’s a treat to watch them return.
David, played by Josh Grisetti, is a wonder of awkward horniness and eager youth. The way Grisetti puckers his lips like a drowning fish at the sight of girls, an audience and his mother was enough to bring tears to my eyes. It’s no wonder he won the Drama Desk Award for his performance at the York Theatre.
From the beginning, Richard Kind, playing Marlowe, the director and owner of the theatre where David auditions, was an audience favorite. Kind’s well-known past in comedy earned him several rounds of applause. Yet, Kind genuinely earns every one of those fits of clapping. In his hands, Marlowe moves through jokes as quickly as he moves through bottles of alcohol — sipped through a straw, if you please.
The diva role belongs to Kate Shindle, who plays Angela. Angela seems unaware that she isn’t actually on Broadway. Though her lines are funny, Shindle’s strength lies in physical humor; flailing her body from side to side, and swishing her hips, her every movement is like a lizard that doesn’t realize it’s dying.
Each character remains unique and funny in their moments. Ray DeMattis, as Mr. Foreman, and Michael Tucker, as David’s dad, dance a duet to “the kids a’ today” as though they were half their age. In less capable hands, the role of David’s mother could have been taken to pure stereotype — Jill Eikenberry keeps her from falling into the standard “Jewish mother” role with sweet aplomb.
And let’s not forget the stage manager, Pike, played by Erick Devine, whose “humphs” — so perfectly timed — generate some of the largest laughs in the show. With only a few lines, Devine makes Pike a memorable bit of grumpy joy. Emily Shoolin, as Wanda, plays up the standard ingénue role. This girl is sweet and ever so slightly dumb, but no one is going to take her David away. Eric Mann, as David’s lapdog best friend, Marvin, seems unaware that David’s success has yet to happen — Marvin’s already dreaming about the Hollywood life he can live alongside David.
Aside from the actors, David Toser deserves praise for his deceptively simple costume design. An Elvis Presley wig and an oversized suit set the tone for one of the most hilarious scenes. The carefully designed outfits for Angela and Wanda make one seem ridiculous, and the other the perfect 1930s girlfriend.
And after what seems like an interminable amount of musicals designed around the “American Idol” belting and screaming style of singing, it’s refreshing to hear actors use correct diction and tone. These actors don’t belt when they don’t need to. They don’t show off — they sing with precision. There’s no need for crazy high notes — a good ear can tell these actors know what they’re doing.
With music and lyrics by Stan Daniels, the score brings to mind the simple refrains of musicals past — with dirtier lyrics. This isn’t another “rock opera” — and thank goodness for that.
Let’s hope “Enter Laughing” follows a more successful route to Broadway than David. If this audience pleaser — and old-fashioned piece of entertainment — keeps up the good work, its Broadway aspirations won’t amount to blind stargazing.