For proof that we all make mistakes, look no further than Laugh at Theatre Three. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley previously wrote the hits Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest (both later turned into star-driven films). Theatre Three, though uneven since the passing of its co-founder Jac Alder, has a storied, 56-year history, even giving a start to Henley when she was a student at SMU.
But past credits can't save something this bad. And neither can a dedicated cast and director, who both work so hard to pull their material from the muck that you can practically see veins pop.
It all starts with Henley's muddy script, which aims for farce but settles for fart jokes. It's clunky, with lots of unnecessary set changes that slow down the breakneck speed required of the cast. And, perhaps most egregiously, it's severely unfunny.
Though billed as a romp through 1920s Hollywood, Laugh is instead the twisted journey of one unlucky orphan as her life goes from bad to worse. Sure, there are cream pies flying at people's faces, but there's also the misguided attempt at levity that results in some truly uncomfortable scenes.
One of the worst examples happens in a forest, where our hero and heroine (charming Theatre Three newcomers Magdiel Carmona and Debbie Crawford) are stranded after being thrown off a train bound for California. They're lost, hungry, and penniless, and a cad named Alphonse (Ashley Wood) takes advantage of that by forcing Crawford's Mabel to pose for pornographic pictures. He also manipulates Carmona's Roscoe into hopping the next train out of town, leaving Mabel vulnerable to his wandering hands. It's a gross scene that's at odds with the goofy tone the show tries so hard to cultivate.
But the goofiness is at times entertaining, thanks mainly to the hard-working ensemble and Jeffrey Schmidt's direction. Bradley Campbell gets plenty of opportunity to dress in drag, Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore is a mustache-twirling villain (sans mustache only some of the time), and Wood gets to try out some exotic accents. Isaac Leaverton tickles the ivories and showcases a smooth announcer's voice in a nod to the piano players and title cards of silent films. But it's the endlessly versatile Steph Garrett who truly scores, with every ridiculous character, offering the audience a slight reason to stay until the end.
Having just been named the new artistic director of Theatre Three, Schmidt is currently choosing the lineup of shows for next season. Hopefully this regrettable misstep is the last we'll see for a while.
Theatre Three's production of Laugh runs through January 29.