Low Blows in High Society

There is something difficult to pin down about Roll With the Punches, Garet Scott's excellent new comedy, premiering at the Abingdon Theater Complex under the very able direction of Kevin Thomsen. Rarely have I laughed so much, and rarely have I not been able to recall quite why. In this respect, Scott is in good company. Who, after two hours of diaphragm-pummeling zingers from Oscar Wilde—or Joe Orton, or any other celebrated farceur—can recall more than one or two of the most biting lines? Lightning flashes and is gone. That doesn't mean we aren't still awed by it during the brief second it splits the night. Still, after some meditation I realized why I couldn't remember most of Scott's best jokes: a great deal of them were never actually spoken. An impressive number of Punches's sharpest turns of phrase aren't, in fact, turned; they are only alluded to. We are pointed in their direction by the corner of a sly smile, or a slight uptick of the voice. Scott has made a farce of innuendo. Trying to communicate the magic of this or that particular moment to the unlucky soul who couldn't attend requires the constant qualifier "you probably had to be there." Considering the art form's single limitation and its singular virtue—live bodies paying witness to other live bodies in a shared space—this is the very definition of good theater.

The play begins with the wheelchair-bound lady of a San Francisco manor, Susan Evans (played in wonderfully maternal drag by Mark Finley), fretting over her two children. And for good reason. Her school-age daughter, Millicent (Jamie Heinlein), is fond of turning tricks on Frisco street corners. Her son, Marshall (Noah Peters), is overly fond of the culinary arts and ball gowns, things the man of the house, world-famous surgeon Dr. John Evans (David R. Gordon), is fond of berating him for.

But Dr. Evans is also fond of women. Enter Penelope Raintree (played by the author), ostensibly hired to help Susan keep an eye on the children. It's soon apparent that Penny has her eye on someone else in the household. Susan's efforts to turn her husband's own wandering eye away from the attractive new hire are rewarded with a one-woman wheelchair race down to the waters of San Francisco Bay, courtesy of the future Mrs. John Evans "the 2nd." Does dear Susan perish? We're not sure. Punches gets slightly over the top from here.

Emerson wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If so, Scott's mind is admirably unencumbered. (That her mind is not little was never in doubt.) Her use of theatrical devices is as protean as her sense of humor. To name just a few: the scene leading up to Susan's impromptu race to the Bay is done as a puppet show, and I counted at least two musical numbers, one of which featured gold lamé and a kick line. Then there's Nellie, the Irish maid, who is played, at one point or another, by every actor in the cast, occasionally all at the same time (to indicate the transformation, each helpfully dons a green apron sporting an outsized bosom).

Mostly, though, Punches is a campy amalgam of soap opera staples and classic movie melodrama, shot through with a cruel modern sensibility. Think Days of Our Lives as conceived by Christopher Durang and commandeered by any studio-era starlet at her most self-parodying.

Indeed, Finley, whose drag a fellow audience member eerily likened to Joyce van Patten ("through a mirror, darkly," I might have added), could easily wear the noble strip of light across his eyes—the tiara of the dramatic leading lady as lit in 1940's films. The rest of the cast walks the fine line between light camp and full-fledged hamming with similar aplomb. I spent much of my time wishing theater was actually capable of close-ups.

The true measure of camp, of course, is its disdain for genuine emotion. It gives us the shell of feelings—their image without their substance, essentially—so that we may enjoy them without being burdened by them. After understanding why I couldn't recall most of Scott's best punch lines, I realized that my amnesia was actually pleasant. For two hilarious hours, I had been unburdened.

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