There’s a fine line between a farcical parody of global politics, and the farcical realities of global politics. In 1990, Director Paul Verhoeven made a film called Total Recall and he thought it would be funny to spoof excessive government scrutiny by making his characters walk through a full-body X-ray machine when they entered the Martian mass transit. He thought he was making was satire of an Orwellian dystopia, but a mere 16 years later, the real life TSA made farce into reality as Americans bared the contents of their scrotums to TSA body scanners. Robert Shearman’s dystopian comedy Easy Laughter starts out as a witty satire of an uptight Protestant Christmas, before taking a 180 degree turn in the Second Act and showing just how close the dream of “A perfect Christmas” is to a reality of a neo-Nazi holiday.
Shearman is best known by nerds for his work on Doctor Who; he wrote the Dalek episode of the Christopher Eccleston series, along with several other Doctor Who projects. However, Easy Laughter has nothing to do with Doctor Who. It is his first play, written in the early 90’s. Shearman’s note in the program for this new production points out that he didn’t quite know what he was doing when he wrote it. Because of his lack of experience, the play breaks many of the rules of story-telling. It starts out as a comedy but ruthlessly casts aside all humor in the Second Act, pulling the rug out from under the audience.
Patsy (Played by Maria Swisher) is a wholesome, middle-class wife preparing her home and children for a big holiday. Her husband, Dennis (Michael Broadhurst) is a decent, hard-working family man with a stiff upper lip, and he expects everything to be perfect for “Christtide”.
At first this all comes across as a Monty Python sketch; one can almost hear Graham Chapman delivering Dennis’ lines as he boasts about how he stopped working as soon as the workday ended, right in the middle of writing a sentence – and he knows exactly how he’ll conclude that sentence once he returns to work after the holiday!
Dennis and Patsy’s children are the adorable Judy (Tana Sirois), and the eerily precocious Toby (Jay William Thomas). By the end of the First Act, they are joined by Dennis’ father Ralph (Nick DeMatteo). There is little hint about what is to come, and it plays out as a very boring family having a very boring little holiday. Audiences can snicker at their efforts to adhere to meaningless traditions, and their desperate sexual frustration. It’s almost like an extended version of “Every Sperm Is Sacred”.
However, the playwright, the Director (Stephen J. Massaro) and designers have added little hints about the true nature of the show; a whiskey bottle has an ominous logo of a pseudo-Nazi insignia. The same insignia appears on Toby’s blazer. The ladies’ fashions are an exaggerated parody of a fifties homemaker and her good little girl. Toby wears a suit with short pants that make him look like a cross between Friedrich from The Sound of Music, and Rolfe the Hitler Youth.
After an hour of these little hints, the playwright comes right out and lets the audience know that this is the future (Or an alternate timeline) where fascists have annihilated the Jews entirely. Their holiday of “Christtide” has replaced Christmas, and it is the annual celebration in which Christ celebrates “The death of the race that killed him”.
This paradigm shift reveals that our family of stuffy, perfectionists are really just trying to survive in a highly regulated society where differing from the norm can draw the attention of a genocidal leadership.
Ralph is old enough to remember the days of the holocaust, and his own part in it. Young Judy is too little to comprehend that the world could be any different from what she has experienced all of her life. Toby, on the other hand, is a genius who is perfectly at home in this new world, while being perfectly aware of how it is different from the old. He is possibly intended by the playwright to be the result of eugenic breeding, and Toby often ruminates on a future where his generation will carry on the work of his predecessors. He sums up the playwright’s fears of fascism by asking his grandfather “Why stop with the Jews?”
The cast is exceptional all around, from DeMeteo as the world-weary grandfather, to Thomas as the only character who genuinely embraces the new world. They all exhibit a different degree of understanding and acceptance of their surroundings.
Easy Laughter is as dark a comedy as one can imagine, with the sort of pitch black humor that is only found in the old days before the world turned into the dystopia that writers like Shearman tried to warn us about. It is playing through May 10th in Manhattan. Tickets and more can be found at www.dirtcontained.com.