A good comedy, as described by A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing’s Broadway agent protagonist Jerry Cobb (Art DeConciliis), is one hundred jokes sprinkled throughout two acts. He argues that audiences don’t care about plot, or deeper narrative; people don’t go to the theater to think, he says, but to be told what to think. It doesn’t even matter what the play is titled. Call it A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing and they’ll believe you.
I have to give Little Lake Theater some credit because their production of Masterpiece is energetic enough drive through such a blunt moment like that without getting its wheels caught in the mud. Written just two years ago, Robert Caisley’s 60’s-set comedy serves as a reminder of how fun the classic, one-liner driven comedies of decades past could be – however, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore for a reason. Little Lake’s production, on the other hand, is sincere, likable, and well-paced, but director James Critchfield can only do so much to elevate what can at times be a muddled script.
Cobb’s comedic analysis is given to Danny “Nebraska” Jones (Greg Caridi), a depressed playwright working on a new comedy Cobb is funding. With the help of his clumsy but wholly devoted assistant, Charlie Bascher (Jeff Johnston), Cobb is trying desperately to get Jones out of his funk so that he’ll write his next Broadway show and make them all a fortune. There’s more at stake here than money, however: Cobb owes some shady Russian financiers a debt that only a smash hit play can repay.
The pace is set by DeConciliis, who plays Cobb with unending exasperation. Despite past successes and an enormous lexicon of his own self-help adages, Cobb’s disinterest in the feelings of others combined with Jones’ dejected gloominess reveal Cobb to be a loud, beleaguered figure incapable of change. He’s a wealthy ‘60s bully too smart for the people around him, but too clumsy and short-sighted to be anyplace else; he’s Don Draper as played by George Costanza.
DeConciliis’ performance doesn’t stretch the character too thin by overplaying his likability, and he’s great at alternating between the put-upon and the put-upon-er. It’s fortunate, too, that DeConciliis is so convincing, because A Masterpiece consists primarily of Cobb yelling at or explaining things to other characters.
Bascher, meanwhile, oscillates between socially-aware straight man and total goofball, enough so that it’s impossible to tell if the play is trying to convince us he is a savant, an idiot, or both. Johnston imbues Casher with an emotional distance that almost gives the character a kind of Grouche Marx-esque madness-as-commentary edge, but the character is always a little at odds with himself. In the play’s craziest moments I don’t quite believe in him, especially when Caridi’s depressive writer and Sara Barbisch’s appropriately ridiculous ‘I’ll sleep my way to the top!’ Nola Hart are so consistent in their motivations.
Besides being a nostalgic comedy about a more glamorous era of celebrity vapidity, A Masterpiece is, true enough to its word, some of the play’s better moments are more or less vessels for Cobb to spit witticisms at his ridiculous counterparts. That’s not a terrible thing, considering Caisley’s comedic hit/miss ratio is actually pretty good, but there are a series of longer bits which get to be a slog. Example: there is an extended conversation about what letters are funny sounding which seems to go on forever. That the punchline is everyone laughing at something that isn’t funny feels particularly frustrating.
Let’s get back to Cobb’s analysis about a good comedy being a hundred jokes and a thin plot. True enough, but A Masterpiece is weirdly kind of plot heavy. My favorite moments in this occur when Jones presents his first draft of the comedy to Cobb. It begins with a distraught Russian woman who is watching her child be devoured alive by wolves. It’s a ridiculous moment and I love it, but it’s followed up by a parade of one-liners from Cobb, none of which are anywhere near as memorable or hilarious as the moment that precedes them. It almost works as a counter argument to the point the play itself is making.
That said, the fact that A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing is still a lot of fun speaks to how consistently smart The Little Lake Theater’s productions are. For my larger issues with the play, I still found myself laughing along anyway thanks to some really fun performances, evocative set design and well-tuned direction.
A Masterpiece of Comic Timing runs through September 16 at Little Lake Theater in Canonsburg. For tickets and more information click here.
Photos by James Orr.