Laugh, Damn Ya, Laugh! carries in its title a strong ambiguity: the promise in that repetition of “laugh” that humor will be forthcoming, and a curse that laughter isn’t happening. Unfortunately, it’s the curse that Walter Corwin’s strange “comedy” labors under, and it’s a heavy one. The play falls into three sections. In the set-up, Sam (Tony King), a formerly potent force in TV comedy production, and somehow the only person in America who can make people laugh, faces a crisis. Why? Reruns of his hit show, Sex in the Rural Areas (a cute, if obvious, reference to Sex and the City), have hit rock bottom: four viewers in the country, down in one week from 10.5 million. His explanation: “People are in church.” Now, why is a rerun the linchpin of humor across the entire country? And would it really air on a Sunday morning? Think about it. Reruns of Sex and the City may draw viewers, but its creators had better have moved on to something else to keep up their reputations. If Sam is such a comedy genius, he’d be worried about his latest creation, not one in reruns. And he’s hardly responsible for the program schedule. He reports to higher-ups known as “the seven samurai.”
Even so, Sam is a Type A personality (King invests him with sangfroid and stoic rationalism). He has fired Sybil (Jessica Day), a former dalliance and a brilliant comedy writer who specializes in social satire. Now he must lure her back. The despondent Sybil, in a robe and curlers, is discovered at home talking to a circle of chairs, whose occupants are the spirits of Oscar Wilde, George S. Kaufman, Aristophanes, George Bernard Shaw, and Woody Allen. She’s invited them with the expectation of Sam’s visit. Her character carries more than a little promise of looniness, but the scene quickly falls flat. Sam enters and explains to Sybil, “I put so much canned laughter into our shows, the machine broke.” So people aren’t laughing because there was too much canned laughter on the shows? Or is it because some “machine” that supplied the canned laughter broke? Or were the shows just not funny? Corwin’s writing is vague and sometimes impenetrable, and feels slapped together.
The midsection features Sam and Jess, his secretary (Samantha Mason), watching auditioners try to be funny—in particular Jack, played by Oliver Thrun, a lanky, bald fellow who injects vital energy into his scenes but is undermined by three laborious monologues that include potshots at historical figures (e.g., Jefferson: “His private life was nothing to write home about”). To be fair, the point is that even this comic genius Jack can’t produce laughter, but that point registers pretty quickly.
The final scene is a screamfest among three “characters”: Hap, the spirit of comedy, represented by a performer in a mask of the Brooklyn Bridge; Traj (tragedy, if you can’t guess), in a mask showing subway cars; and Victory Man (King again), limping in a tattered superhero costume with a “V” on his chest—he's Voteman. Had King not shown competence earlier on as Sam, one might be appalled to find his work so amateurish (as is much of the other acting). The women fare particularly badly under director Jonathan Weber, who doesn’t seemed to have challenged the writer about the many inconsistencies or given any shape to the scenes. Even Thrun and King, who both have strong, resonant voices, only give a glimmer of the promise they might deliver with better material.
Corwin has a weakness for showing off erudition that doesn’t advance the plot. Early scenes contain references to Greek tragedy, from the Furies to Thyestes, Sweeney Todd, and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But when the ghost of Oscar Wilde misquotes his own line from The Importance of Being Earnest, you know you’re in trouble.