We all have bad days. Some people more than others, as the characters in Christopher Durang’s 1987 play Laughing Wild can attest.
On the surface, this two-hander—playing at 21ten Theatre through Oct. 29—is about a shopping trip involving a woman, a man, and a can of tuna gone awry. But Durang turns this incident into the big bang for an entire universe of thought-provoking comedy. Featuring Brooke Totman and Darius Pierce (as nameless characters) and directed by Ted Rooney, Laughing Wild is a sleek vehicle for the actors to demonstrate their formidable talents.
Act 1 is divided into two long monologues. We first meet Totman, whose shocked eyes and disheveled hair speak volumes before she even says a word. Once she starts talking, she doesn’t stop. We learn her character is not just having a bad day, she’s having perhaps her worst day ever.
“I want to talk to you about life. It’s just too difficult to be alive, isn’t it?” begins her retelling of a grocery store encounter, in which she whacks Pierce on the head for taking too long to pick out a can of tuna. Her story quickly reveals itself to be a polemic against one of life’s greatest inconveniences—other people.
Existential much? References to Camus and Beckett abound; in fact, the play’s title comes from a line in Becket’s play Happy Days about “laughing wild amidst severest woe,” which Totman’s character is fond of quoting. And laugh she does, with the bona fides of a Bond villain. You can’t help but guffaw with her (and at her), even though you know her rant to be the personal confessions of a woman deeply troubled.
Totman commands the stage for nearly 45 minutes before ceding it to Pierce. Addressing the audience from a lectern, he admits he is unhappy in his job as a TV writer and says he wishes he had been a professor since he likes to talk. I, too, enjoy Pierce’s talking (his mellifluous voice is made for radio).
When Pierce begins a story about a recent trip to the grocery store, we realize he is the “asshole” Totman’s character told us about. But despite their connection, her grievances are mostly existential, whereas his are explicitly political.
A repressed gay man, Pierce’s character is initially shy about discussing his sexuality, then goes on to lambast a 1986 Supreme Court ruling which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy. He even delivers a satirical impersonation of God deciding to inflict AIDS upon the world. “I don’t know why I invented sex to begin with,” he muses as our Heavenly Father. “It’s a revolting idea.”
Totman and Pierce are finally united in the second act for a Groundhog Day-like revisit of that fateful shopping incident. With each iteration, the outcome becomes more surreal. Totman becomes a talk show host and Pierce, her guest, is ceremoniously garbed as the Infant Jesus of Prague.
21ten’s intimate black box almost feels insufficient for the cast’s maximalist performances. Totman’s portrayal of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown is impeccable, while Pierce offers a slightly more restrained foil to her unhinged diatribes (although both characters are deeply neurotic, he is at least attempting to maintain a positive attitude amidst his severe woe).
Many of the play’s 1980s existential obstacles—climate change, gun violence, Republicans—remain relevant. Durang’s effervescent writing is akin to the work of astute social observers like Nora Ephron and Noah Baumbach, mixed with a dash of Larry David.
In less capable hands, this unwieldy play would run the risk of coming off as too clever for its own good. But the production’s ingenuity ensures everyone is laughing wildly, actors and audience alike.
SEE IT: Laughing Wild plays at 21ten Theatre, 2110 SE 10th Ave., 503-208-5143, 21ten.org. 7:30 pm Friday-Sunday, 2 pm Sunday, through Oct. 29. $25.