Though billed as a comedy – and certainly the black humor of much of what is spoken with the voice of the foul-mouthed, demonically possessed Tyrone is often a riot – there’s a point where the funny is superseded by the horror, even the sadness; the recognition of such may depend on the audience with whom you share a performance.
Ask any actor performing comedy – light, dark, or jet black, the style matters little – and they’ll tell you, from night to night, the laughs come at different times with different beats. You never quite know what to expect. What may seem riotously funny one night may be met with silence on the following. When that happens, a complacent cast, thinking it has a guaranteed laugh-fest on its hand after hearing the belly laughs of an opening night crowd, may wonder what went wrong when the laughter of another audience is considerably subdued. The answer, of course, is nothing. Laughter is contagious. Plus, it acts as a prompt for others to join in. But when a difference in reaction occurs, something interesting happens to the play.
An audience, so busy slapping its knees and giving out deep, hearty laughs, may miss the more serious aspects of a play, or perhaps not even recognize them; they’re simply too busy enjoying themselves laughing. Like the laugh-track on a TV sit-com that not only gives atmosphere but reminds the TV viewer when to laugh, how you’ll react throughout Hand to God may depend on those sitting around you. When TV’s M*A*S*H was sold overseas, the laugh-track was removed. What amused American TV audiences received a different reaction in Europe. It was almost as if the two continents were watching a different show. And so it is with Hand to God. Friday’s opening night performance was greeted with overwhelming, boisterous laughter that (I was told) often drowned dialog. With Sunday’s matinee there were times when you could hear a pin drop.
Make no mistake, Stray Cat’s presentation with Phoenix Theatre is an excellent production and may prove to be the standout of its 2017-18 season. Director Ron May has assembled a first class cast, all of whom embody their character types exactly as required, with standouts from both Louis Farber, perfect and perfectly real as the pastor, and Elyse Wolf, convincing as the widow Margery. But when the laughter is muted, as it was this past Sunday, and the outlandish situations are played mostly straight, as they are here, a different play with the same dialog tends to emerge.
The absence of laughs makes Pastor Greg’s infatuation with Margery feel all the more realistically frustrating. Margery’s loss of her husband and now the fear of losing her son to the devil is as upsetting as it sounds, and conveyed by Wolf so convincingly well. Plus, the evil Tyrone’s domination of Jason’s right arm may well be a comically broad, freakish embellishment of satanic possession, but without that riotous laughter that the play will undoubtedly experience on some evenings, his plight comes across as all the more sad, even horrific. Be prepared for the difference.
At the conclusion of the first half, some audience members may well exit the theatre for a fifteen intermission break unexpectedly shaken. It’s as if one of the Muppets of Sesame Street bypassed the low-rent squalor of Avenue Q and went straight to the unrated director’s cut of The Exorcist.