The lives of three stand-up comedians are explored - we meet them both onstage and off - and elements of originality are added as two of the three are handicapped.
The primary setting is a nightclub in Atlantic City. Patrick Poole portrays Orny Griswald, who once starred in a sitcom with the punch-line "But that's not my room!", but has had more limited success in recent years. He is not handicapped, at least physically, though he becomes increasingly bitter as his mental state deteriorates with a failing marriage. Poole is excellent in moving from a performer who controls his audience to a self-pitying comic en route to a meltdown.
Benjamin McLaughlin portrays Tucky, a paraplegic wounded in Iraq and confined to a wheelchair, which he uses to good effect in references to himself as a "stand-up" comic. Playwright Vic Shuttee provides flashbacks of Tucky on duty in Iraq before he was wounded, though these needlessly slow down the progress of the play -- the information could be summarized rather than witnessed. McLaughlin is also excellent, and generates liability and warmth.
Michaela Heidemann portrays Laurel, who is deaf but can read lips. Her humor is more sophisticated than the others, and the very attractive Heidemann, slender, with copper-colored hair, provides a vivacious personality that marks her as a winner. Laurel is both manipulative and impulsive, and Heidemann is a gifted, skilled actor who brings her to stunning life.
Christine Arnold plays Orny's wife and is wonderful in evoking the appropriate sympathy. She shifts gears in a cameo to portray, brilliantly, a cynical and polished "Dr. Sandra" television personality. Paige Wharton plays several roles well, chiefly Ida, a friend of Laurel. Max Holkan plays a professor, most ably. And Katie Murphy Maddox and Parke Fech play multiple roles.
The acting is of a high level, and playwright Shuttee has a gift for creating interesting characters, and a finely-tuned ear for the rhythm of language. Yet there are problems - the stand-up routines, while amusing at times, are delivered much too slowly. There is none of the electric connection, the desperate need for the next joke to be a winner, that should saturate the air. The routines are delivered casually, and seem to be more therapy sessions for the comic than routines meant to slay the audience. In any club worth its salt, they would have long since gotten the hook.
The work is necessarily episodic, shifting back and forth among the three comics on stage, and taking us into their off-stage lives as well. But this cinematic technique leaves little time for emotional build-up, or for deepening our grasp of the characters. What we have are slices of three lives, linked by the fact that all are practicing the same craft. But is this enough for a play, or should we expect as well a denouement, a payoff that lets us leave the theater, pondering?
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The work is directed by Dr. Robert Shimko, playwriting professor at the University of Houston, where Shuttee is a student, and Shimko has done well in casting, in evoking fine performances, and in making scene changes smooth and painless. Yet the casualness of the nightclub routines undermines the premise of the play, making belief difficult. The work runs for two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.
Interesting characters are presented entertainingly, with fine acting, in a series of vignettes about the performances of three stand-up comics and their off-stage lives.
Brick Wall continues through November 17 at Jose Quintero Theatre, UH, 133 Wortham. For information or ticketing, call 713-743-2929 or contact www.uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance.