The Dynamics of Duos | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Dynamics of Duos 

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Laurel & Hardy Sleep Together

Terrapin Theatre

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, South Hall

Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati)

Urbis Orbis

Comedy teams--once a staple of vaudeville, variety shows, TV, and movies--are an endangered species, all but snuffed out by stand-up clubs, which demand solo performers. Where once we had Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, we now have Roseanne, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld--all fine, funny comedians capable of working with other (usually better) actors, but still in their heart of hearts solo acts who happen to have sitcoms. Note how even Seinfeld, a show with a strong ensemble, begins and ends with Jerry alone onstage telling jokes; he doesn't want us to forget the once-and-future stand-up king.

And with the passing of the comedy teams goes a lot of secret knowledge about how two-person acts work, specifically the subtleties of status. Every successful comedy team has a high-status character and a low-status character, a bully and a victim, an Oliver Hardy and a Stan Laurel. Much of a team's comedy comes from the myriad ways the two torture, tease, and infuriate each other. The routines can be painfully trite-- Hardy hands Laurel a hammer, holds a nail in place, and says, "When I nod my head, you hit it"--but if the chemistry is right and the relationship has been carefully established, when Hardy nods and Laurel crowns him it's funny.

Terry Dodd's Laurel & Hardy Sleep Together contains a lot of shtick reminiscent of the hammer bit, most notably the chestnut in which two men try to sleep in a bed built for one. When the Three Stooges did this (and they did it over and over and over in their tedious, prolific career), inevitably the three would try to sleep head to foot like sardines in a can, and Larry or Shep (both perennially low-status) would end up pushing his smelly feet into Moe's face and Moe, the ultimate high-status comic, would first giggle--toes tickle--then wake up angry and bite (CRUNCH!) the foot that offended him. Nothing so witty happens in this production, which uses the old vaudeville premise to examine homophobia and the way even best buddies have subtle sexual feelings for each other that, as uptight heteros, they cannot acknowledge. Dodd's basic idea is a good one, but bad casting and Pam Dickler's humorless direction guarantee that none of the funny stuff in this somewhat overwritten play survives.

The main problem is that Scott Letscher and Frank Stilwagner (as Danny and Robert) are just not that funny together--mostly because their relationship lacks even the slightest hint of the comedy team's usual sadomasochism. Instead the two of them relate in the flattest way possible, as if to underscore that they have no sexual feelings for each other. This is both impossible and uninteresting--a hint of sexuality, or at least jealousy, is central to every successful comedy team, even if it's the jealousy one partner feels about the other's romantic success.

This approach makes Dodd's story--a lot of bickering and tossing and turning, almost the whole 55 minutes the two are onstage--feel very long indeed. And it makes Dodd's message seem annoyingly simple: homophobia is silly. Too bad--his play could have been as rich and complex as human sexuality.

I didn't see Larry Larson and Levi Lee when they came through Chicago in the late 80s with their two-man show Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati), a dark comedy making fun of Bible thumpers and their paranoid worldview. But others who saw and enjoyed the show said that much of its humor came from the way the tall, large Larson, playing the crazed evangelist Reverend Eddie, interacted with the smaller, thinner Lee, play-ing Eddie's little buddy Brother Lawrence.

The script is humorous but not brilliantly funny. Its strong point is that Larson and Lee clearly know of what they speak. Their jabs at established religion--reflected in bits like the dream sequence mocking Saint Paul and his epistle to the Ephe-sians--are pointed and well informed. But essentially they've cobbled together a series of revue sketches into something resembling a story: Reverend Eddie and Lawrence either are or believe they are among the last people on earth, yet they spend their time preparing for Reverend Eddie's sermon comparing religious belief to basketball. A moment's slackness in the acting makes the script's weaknesses abundantly clear.

Which is what happens when Steve Emily and Bart Petty, two actors who are not clear on how to do comedy or how to interact as a team, tackle this script. Neither of them is convincing. Emily's Reverend Eddie is certainly insane, but not in a way that inspires laughter. From the moment that this latter-day Don Quixote walks onstage we feel sorry for this poor, driven madman, and our sympathy short-circuits Larson and Lee's cruel comedy. By contrast Petty is totally unbelievable as Brother Lawrence, the Sancho Panza role. He never plays the wormlike lower-status comic, and so he undermines Reverend Eddie's higher status. Only when Petty is alone, during his dream sequences, do we see a glimmer of comic talent in him--and then it's only a glimmer.

The funniest thing about this show is the set--a nativity scene in which the usual wise men, shepherds, and so on adoring the Baby Jesus are joined by a giraffe and a chimpanzee. That sad fact helps explain why, soon after the play started, I found myself actually yearning for the end of the world--or at least the end of this show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bill Wood.

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