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Theater review: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Laughing Stock”

by on March 27, 2012

I can’t say it’s a surprise that Pioneer Theatre Company’s latest production is good; the theater rarely delivers a clunker. But Laughing Stock was still an unexpectedly pleasing and joyful valentine to theater lovers that proved sneaky in its effective delivery of nearly non-stop laughs, and some heartfelt emotion, too.

Haven’t heard of Laughing Stock? That’s a shame, because it should be a regular theater feature along the lines of Noises Off!, one of the inspirations to Pioneer’s soon-departing artistic director Charles Morey in writing Laughing Stock in the late ’90s. Like that familiar and still-funny favorite, Laughing Stock is a comical “inside look” at a theater troupe, in this case at a summer-stock theater in New England, and the collection of oddball and endearing characters who make up the theater’s actors, backers and technical staffers.

Laughing Stock has been produced for years across the country, and this year’s production at the Pioneer is its first return visit to the theater where the show premiered in 2001. That’s far too long a hiatus, and here’s hoping the show becomes a more regular feature in Salt Lake City programs.

Of course, it will be hard to replicate the success of Pioneer’s current show. Laughing Stock is a true ensemble comedy, with more than a dozen characters involved–most of them given featured spots along the play’s path to shine, or potentially grind the show to a halt. That doesn’t happen at all in this production; indeed, the sparkling cast is remarkably skilled at delivering the combination of slapstick physical comedy and witty, twisting dialogue that blends a little Shakespeare here and a little Noel Coward there, along with plenty of homey, small-town sentiment.

L-R: Paul Kiernan (Henry Mills), Craig Bockhorn (Craig Conlin), Jack Koenig (Gordon Page), Cheryl Gaysunas (Sarah McKay). Photo by Alexander Weisman.

The play kicks off with Gordan Page (Jack Koenig) showing off the charms of his small New England playhouse to an aspiring actor, Jack Morris (Cary Donaldson), who believes he’s destined for better things than a summer gig in a converted barn. Flash-forward a couple months, and Jack is part of the cast of three plays: King Lear, a new version of Dracula and Charley’s Aunt. Joining him are a hilarious assortment of troupe veterans like the elderly thespians Richard Hawksley (Anderson Matthews) and Daisy Coates (Joyce Cohen), a saucy starlet named Mary Pierre (Lesley Shires), a returning leading man, Tyler Taylor (David Christopher Wells) who may or may not have knocked up a co-star the previous summer, and a crusty big-ego and big-time-in-his-own-mind grump named Vernon Volker (Jeff Steitzer).

The cast is consistently excellent; I tried to pinpoint who was my favorite character as the action unfolds on stage, the cast rehearsing for the shows while Gordon hustles theater donors for funds to keep the theater alive, and it was impossible. In on scene Volker’s acidic asides would elicit laughs, and in the next, Taylor-as-Dracula, with his cape caught in a door, is bringing down the house. Paul Kiernan, as set designer Henry Mills, is a gas every time he’s on stage, whether exasperated at trying to create special effects for Dracula, or drunkenly drinking in celebration of the summer’s end. Shires’ Mary was effervescent as well, a mix of sexy and silly that was a blast to watch.

L-R: Kymberly Mellen (Susannah Huntsmen), Jeff Steitzer (Vernon Volker). Photo by Alexander Weisman.

That pretty much goes for the entire show. It’s quick-paced, blasting by in two acts that have the audience cheering for the people on stage to succeed. It’s cleverly staged by Morey (in his director’s hat), and the sets, as always at Pioneer, are impressive. Even when the show delivers a dramatic aside, as when Gordon and his ex-wife/stage manager Sarah (Cheryl Gaysunas) share an intense conversation about the past, it just works.

Here’s hoping that after Morey departs Pioneer, the theater remembers gems like Laughing Stock and brings it around again sometime.

Laughing Stock runs at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater through April 7. Visit the Pioneer Theatre Company Website for tickets and showtimes.

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