A Funny Kind of War

One always hopes that enterprising theater companies will unearth lost treasures, as the Mint and the Peccadillo have been doing for several years. The discovery of a 1977 artifact, Easy Outs, or the Adventures of Alphonse on the Lam, is laudable for the risk-taking EndTimes Productions, but unfortunately it’s valuable only as a signpost for the career of Chip Keyes, a performer of stand-up comedy in the 1970s who later went to Hollywood and has made a career of writing for television, notably Perfect Strangers. Nowadays, the f-word is everywhere in stand-up, but Easy Outs is quaintly of its time: It shuns blue language and tries to score comic points in the spirit of the Three Stooges, the Borscht Belt, and classic vaudeville. It’s 1969 and Alphonse (Alessandro Colla) has a low draft lottery number (one of a number of dated elements). Alphonse tells his girlfriend, Genevieve, that he’s leaving for “a small, neutral, peace-loving country.” He doesn’t want to be sent to Vietnam and killed, he says, although he doesn’t really articulate any philosophical opposition to the war. Genevieve (Sarah Scoofs), however, has romantic notions that Alphonse should resist the war, go to prison, and provide her with a reason to write folk songs about his suffering (a topical reference to Joan Baez, whose husband did time).

Once Alphonse reaches his destination, he is drafted into its military—the small, neutral, peace-loving country is at war. There follow various misadventures as the hero escapes from his unit and then assumes the identity of The Wolf, a guerrilla leader, and becomes ever more embroiled in armed struggles with cartoonish characters: a monocled, Nazi-accented sergeant; a money-grubbing monk; hungry, horny soldiers; and various fifth columnists. Director Russell Dobular has cast some game young actors who have backgrounds in improv and stand-up, and some of the gags work even when they lead nowhere, but not nearly enough.

For instance, Alphonse gets mixed up in an assassination plot with three inept (but well-played) revolutionaries: Jessica Ko is Gerta, the Maoist brains behind the dissidents; Sergio Fuenzalida is a vain, brainless guerrilla; and Marek Sapieyevski is Sam, a vaguely Eastern European agent secretly in love with Gerta. Their mantra is “The cause!”; when one of them declaims the phrase, the others immediately shout, “The cause!” It’s classic Three Stooges business, and Keyes’s feeling for this tried-and-true comedy is on target, though it’s overly familiar. Some of the byplay is moderately amusing—Fuenzalida is a cartoon Latino, but endearing in his stereotype.

Still, the whole is wildly uneven. Ray Chao can’t do much with the monk’s irritating mania of free-associating words: “Technically. Technicolor. Technology, technician, polytech, high-tech, Georgia Tech… Tech me out to da ball game!” Chao also adds a touchie-feelie feyness to the character that’s plain creepy. (Dobular also pushes too hard to get humor out of this scene—why should the monk bend over and reach between his legs to receive a payoff from Alphonse? Possibly because nothing else in the scene is funny, and he’s desperate for a laugh.) Keyes gives a similar shtick to The Wolf (Jeremy Pape) who, wounded and delirious, assumes various pop culture personas that stop the play cold. Both are characters that Robin Williams might pull off, but in the hands of anything less than genius they just fall flat.

As Alphonse, however, Alessandro Colla provides a charming, deftly reactive performance. He underscores the character’s naivete and bewilderment as he’s drawn more and more into various tangled webs in the episodic, ever-darkening plot. He’s a bit nebbishy and a bit inept, and yet he’s blessed with a klaxon voice that can he can shade into a gravelly murmur. One can believe he has the charisma to substitute for The Wolf. Adam P. Murphy also delivers a splendid but brief turn as a CIA agent.

EndTimes’s production values are effective but minimal: a raft with a sail, some tables and a bar, and a fountain help set various scenes. In fact, it has the feel of the Fringe Festival come early. Easy Outs is a young man’s play, one that shows a talent not yet fully formed but with an affinity for wordplay and low-comedy hijinks—it’s a small stepping-stone on the way to the sublime silliness of Perfect Strangers.

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