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Theatre in Review: Enter Laughing: The Musical (York Theatre Company)

Chris Dwan, Allie Trimm. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The kosher corn is as high as an elephant's eye in Enter Laughing, a shameless hokefest that crossbreeds 1930s nostalgia, Jewish domestic comedy, and backstage farce to often-irresistible effect. Even when the jokes seem to hail from the days of Weber and Fields, this is one musical that knows what they are about: It stares you down, daring you not to laugh, knowing full well that it holds the winning hand. It is also gifted with a buoyant score that amusingly brings to life the fantasies of its hormonal, stagestruck adolescent hero. The York had a big hit with it back in 2008 and '09; there's little reason to believe that lightning won't strike twice.

(For those of you focused on more trivial matters, like Chinese tariffs, Enter Laughing is one of those strangely durable properties seemingly destined to turn up, sooner or later, in every available medium. It began as a semiautobiographical novel by Carl Reiner, published in 1958, between his legendary gigs as Sid Caesar gagman and creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Joseph Stein, himself a veteran of the Sid Caesar years, turned it into a play in 1963, in a production that launched Gene Saks as a top Broadway comedy director; a film followed in 1967. Stein revisited the property in 1978, teaming up with the songwriter Stan Daniels to musicalize it as So Long, 174th Street; only the casting gods could explain why forty-seven-year-old Robert Morse, of New England, was cast as a horny Jewish teenager, and the closing notice was quickly posted. The property languished for thirty years, but Stein, who late in life found a home at the York, rethought the property: Enter Laughing is the rehabbed version of So Long, 174th Street.)

The premise is as frothy as an egg cream: the adolescent David Kolowitz lives in the Bronx with his parents, toiling by day as a machinist's assistant, but dreaming of stardom. His entire repertoire consists of Ronald Colman and Edward G. Robinson impressions, but he is convinced that he can go far. This notion is laid out delectably in the opening number, "David Kolowitz, the Actor," in which he imagines John Barrymore, President Roosevelt, and the Pope all lining up for his autograph. In pursuit of his seemingly impossible dream, he ends up entangled with a semi-pro theatre troupe run by a seedy, alcoholic old ham and his daughter, a superannuated ingenue with a deep interest in rehearsing her love scenes; this turn of events sends his girlfriend, Wanda, into a panic and has his parents accelerating their plans to pack him off to pharmacy school. Will David end up among the bright lights of Broadway? Or is he doomed to a life of handing out Bromo-Seltzer to the real housewives of the Bronx?

It's much ado about very little, covering only a couple of days, but it turns the dilemma of a nice young man, roiled equally by sexual desire and the lust for fame, into highly enjoyable vaudeville. As David, Chris Dwan has a face that seems to move in several directions at once, as well as a nervous lope that makes him a possible undersecretary to John Cleese's Minister of Silly Walks. (He also deploys an armada of amusing bad-actor tics in the rehearsal scenes.) Elsewhere, he sings and moves like a dream, and he has a nice chemistry with Allie Trimm's Wanda, especially when ineptly trying to explain away the other women in his life. Trimm, who can invest a fairly conventional ingenue role with high comic style, stops the show with "Men," a teen torch number: Provocatively stirring her malted, she moans low about such faithless suitors as Joel Zimmerman and Ziggy Stone, as only a recent high school graduate can.

The other ladies in David's life include Dana Costello, as the breezily wisecracking as Miss B, a curvaceous, blonde secretary with whom he partners in the amusing fantasy seduction, "You," with lyrics constructed entirely from popular standards ("There's a small hotel/Where you can do that voodoo you do so well"), and Farah Alvin, priceless as Angela, the actress, who, in her best Helen Morgan manner, plants herself on a piano to describe her ideal swain in "The Man I Can Love." (As it happens, her standards are notably broad: "He must be six feet tall, at the very least five/I can't love just any man; he must be alive.") Robert Picardo and Ray DeMattis team up nicely, as David's father and employer, to complain that the younger generation is only interested in "Hot Cha Cha." Alison Fraser has a smile that freezes as David's sweetly lethal mother, assiduously mopping the floor while piling on loads of guilt in "If You Want to Break Your Mother's Heart." Joe Veale is fun as David's genial partner in crime, as is Raji Ahsan as the theatre company's seen-it-all stage manager.

Providing an ideal counterbalance to David's starry-eyed innocence is David Schramm as Marlowe, the irascible, broken-down actor-manager; staring disapprovingly at a world of philistines through distinctly rheumy eyes, muttering imprecations in a rumble that seems to emanate from a sepulcher, and reaching desperately for one of the tiny bottles of booze planted around the set, he is the production's comic center, especially when David's opening night turns into a series of mishaps. (Among other things, a key prop fails to appear, Angela is rudely ejected from her chaise longue, and she and David end up hopelessly trapped, and nearly strangled, in her strand of pearls.) Schramm also makes the most of "The Butler's Song," appearing, in David's most fevered fantasy, as the manservant who juggles his dates with the cream of Hollywood's leading ladies. (The opening line is one of the great shock laughs.)

Aided by the lively choreography of Jennifer Paulson-Lee, Stuart Ross' staging is equally adept at handling romantic interludes, family spats, and The Play That Goes Wrong-style scenes of onstage disaster. (Keep your eyes peeled for a surprise cameo by one of the York's most beloved personalities.) James Morgan's set design nicely frames the action in a beat-up proscenium dotted with tiny lights and surrounded by sepia-tone city streetscapes and signs. Tyler M. Holland's costumes blend solid period detail into an appealing blue-green-brown palette. The lighting, by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz, is typically sleek and tasteful. Julian Evans' sound design is well-nigh invisible, high praise indeed.

It's probably an open question how well Enter Laughing will play with younger audiences not raised with this kind of showbiz shtick. (Entire scenes play like sketches from a 1970s-era variety show.) But with an impeccable pedigree of two great comedy writers and a bouncy score by a songwriter who also wrote for many leading sitcoms, it should keep the York's audience in stitches for the length of its run. -- David Barbour

(17 May 2019)

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