That comedy comes from pain is a well-worn trope, but in International Falls, Thomas Ward's compassionate and sharply observed world-premiere play, it's a two-way street: Not only do misfortune and sadness produce laughs, but comedy also leads to tragedy. This is the case with Tim (Isaac Lamb), a standup comedian who, after 16 years of moderate success on the hotel-bar circuit, is burned out, lonely and aimless. Stuck in International Falls, Minn., for a two-night gig in the bleak midwinter, Tim meets a Holiday Inn desk clerk named Dee (Laura Faye Smith), who invites herself back to his room (and also happens to have comedic aspirations of her own).
What follows—but only after a beneath-the-sheets hand job—is 90 minutes of theater that is both piercingly funny and bitterly heart-rending. Ward writes pointed but humane dialogue, and under Brandon Woolley's shrewd direction, Smith and Lamb move seamlessly from jokes about genitalia (Tim describes a penis as looking like a caterpillar lounging on a beanbag) to cracks about hotel curtains and Canada to humor that exposes these characters' insecurities and sorrows. As Tim puts it, "Comedy is a pre-emptive strike. I'm gonna make fun of me before anybody gets a chance to, because I know it's coming." These exchanges, set in a drab hotel room, are cut with snippets of Tim's standup act, which Lamb delivers with a sense of weary confidence.
But dark realities lurk behind Tim's well-practiced assurance, and Dee, despite her lively demeanor and resilient front, isn't holding up so well either. Both actors are dynamic yet vulnerable, wedding ace comic timing with raw emotion. Lamb, his doughy frame clad only in plaid boxers, lumbers about the stage as Smith, her character steeled by vodka, bounces manically on the bed in her high heels. As the evening wears on, though, and Tim and Dee probe their messy marriages, Smith's eyes become darting and uncertain, and she wraps herself in the bedsheet as if it's armor. It's a nuanced and slightly wounded performance, making up for what's the comparatively underwritten role.
Though the production lurches a bit toward the end—the dialogue grows circuitous in its tired discussion of authenticity, and the conclusion puzzles even as it unsettles—International Falls hits the funny bone as well as the heart.
SEE IT: International Falls is at the CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 220-2646. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through Feb. 16. $20-$25.