Chris Dwan (center) and the cast of ‘Enter Laughing.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Enter Laughing: The Musical, which debuted under Stuart Ross’s sprightly direction at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre in 2008 to very warm reviews, has returned to the York, with Ross again at the helm. It’s a generally diverting (if slightly problematic) show, whose roots are in Enter Laughing, a novel by comic genius Carl Reiner that was dramatized by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) into a hit 1963 comedy of the same name.
It, in turn, was musicalized in 1976 as So Long, 174th Street, during the same season that birthed A Chorus Line and Chicago. The result was a 16-performance flop, with a book by Stein and music and lyrics by Stan Daniels; its 2008 revision, retitled, surprised everyone by how funny it was.
Enter Laughing, set in the late 1930s, is about David Kolowitz (Chris Dwan), a talentless teen from the Bronx, who wants so badly to be an actor that he rejects his hardworking parents’ insistence that he become a pharmacist. The 29-year-old Alan Arkin was hilarious as the original David, 44-year-old Robert Morse was miscast in 1976, Josh Grisetti was a crowd pleaser in 2008, but Dwan, appealing and musically talented, is a bit shy in the natural clown department; despite his hard work, he’s not especially convincing as a Depression-era Jewish kid. Fortunately, he’s supported by an ensemble that nails all the other roles.
David, a cute schnook in a James Monroe High School jacket, works as a machinist for Mr. Forman (Ray DeMattis). He’s got a buddy, Marvin (Joe Veale), who supports his ambitions; a loyal girlfriend, Wanda (Allie Trimm), who has to contend with his roving eye; the sexy, Billie Dawn-like Miss B (Dana Costello), a secretary who catches that eye; and, of course, those pushy parents, Emma (Alison Fraser, Squeamish) and Morris (Robert Picardo). Wanda’s jealousy is further aroused by Angela Marlowe (Farrah Alvin), the seductive actress-daughter of Harrison Marlowe (David Schramm), the egregiously hammy actor-director and booze-hound who casts the hopeless David because of Angela’s interest in him.
David’s naivete inspires laughs, but his ignorance needs a natural comedian to make it seem plausible. It’s a struggle believing that someone with acting aspirations—even one whose sole accomplishment is an awful impression of Ronald Colman—wouldn’t know the difference between stage directions and dialogue (as per the title: “enter laughing”), or what a “cue” is. Such cuelessness (I know) helps push the material over the top, especially when the play being rehearsed is performed.
In that scene, David enters, wearing a clownishly oversized tuxedo, sees the audience, is struck dumb, and incites a series of mishaps of the kind much more risibly enshrined in The Play That Goes Wrong. Ultimately, David’s romantic, family, and career aspirations are happily resolved.
In contrast to what I’d heard, I found the book weaker than the score. Funny as it often is, the script is simply too silly and overstated, while each of the 15 songs is musically catchy, with cleverly entertaining lyrics. If I had to cite just two, one would be Emma’s “My Son, the Druggist,” in which she lays a Jewish mother’s giant guilt trip on David. The other is “The Butler’s Song,” a risqué patter routine in which a fantasy butler—memorably limned by David Schramm—tells Greta Garbo how long she’ll have to wait before “movie star” David has time to sleep with her. A sample:
At five-thirty he humps Alice Faye
Then Jean Harlow at seven
Mae West at eleven
And somewhere between them Faye Wray
York artistic director James Morgan has designed a lovely false proscenium surrounded by period posters, with a simplified set allowing for choreographic scene-shifting by the spirited ensemble of eight (keep an eye on newcomer Magnes Jamo as Harry Hamburger). Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting design makes the stage sparkle, and Tyler M. Holland’s costumes are both brightly theatrical and period-worthy. Jennifer Paulson-Lee creates minimal but effective dance routines.
Enter Laughing: The Musical is a pleasantly old-fashioned, even nostalgic, musical farce, whose modest book carries the weight of its stereotypical characters, period references, romantic tsuris, and laugh-worthy lyrics. Whether or not you enter or leave laughing, there’s enough comic material here to get your yocks off in between.
Enter Laughing: The Musical
York Theatre Company
St. Peter’s Church
619 Lexington Ave., NYC
Through June 9
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.