Beth Henley’s social satire: Laugh at Theatre 3

Billed as a new play by Beth Henley, Laugh, currently playing at Theatre 3, is a comedy that begins by spoofing Tennessee Williams and then proceeds to undercut the grand mythology of American pop film. Henley always knew how to score humor from the follies of eccentric loners and unrequited love (Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest) but perhaps it works better when she takes the scenic route. When Mabel’s Uncle Curly is blown up by a premature mining blast, she is left wealthy but without family. She goes to visit her Aunt October Defoliant and Uncle Oscar Defoliant, and Cousin Roscoe, without realizing they want Roscoe to marry her and land her fortune. Uncle Oscar is a drunkard and Aunt October a schemer. Roscoe loves to catch butterflies. They all talk in Williams’ special Southern blend of loftiness, disappointment and tawdriness. Mabel is beautiful, but she could make Ma Kettle look like Coco Chanel. Roscoe finds Mabel’s lack of breeding repugnant, but confesses the plot to grab her fortune. In the meantime, they take refuge in a movie theater, where they absorb the salient delight of cinema stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Theda Bara.

To escape Aunt October’s desire to poison Mabel (now that marriage is off the table) they flee to the wasteland of the American Western Desert. There they fall into the clutches of a fiendish, salacious photographer, who wishes to use Mabel in pornographic Valentines. His crony escorts Roscoe from the premises at gunpoint (“Cowardice,” Roscoe exclaims, “My capacious failing.”) leaving Mabel with the impression he has abandoned her. By now Roscoe has grown quite attached to Mabel, but it’s a few years before he catches up with her in Hollywood. She has become a glamorous screen idol (ala Marlene Dietrich?) with a platinum blonde wig. Even when she recognizes him, it’s awhile before their wayward, tempestuous love is consummated. If ever.

Henley’s point, it seems, is the sham of believing what entertainment culture tells us to do. Instead of experiencing and understanding love, we fall prey to the indoctrination of movies and conventional wisdom. This is certainly a valid point, and well worth considering. That being said, while Laugh is fairly clever, it never feels funny. The pervasive flatulence, the shtick, the goofy send ups of Hollywood depravity, the withering response to Gothic decadence and film’s lame attempt to depict untainted love. You can build a compelling play from mockery, but the tone here is misleading. The narrative’s driven by contempt but we’re given the impression it’s all about amusement. It’s drama in comedy’s clothes.

The cast of Laugh is undoubtedly keen, versatile, poised and very, very smart. They have lots to do, and they bring it off with aplomb. Props to Ashley Elizabeth Bashore, Bradley Campbell, Magdiel Carmona, Debbie Crawford, Steph Garrett, Ashley Wood, and Isaac Leaverton (The Piano Player) for their diligence and forbearance.

Theatre 3 presents Laugh, playing January 5th – 29th, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201-1417. 214-871-3300.

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