Comedy with Character

"Dying is easy, comedy is hard," goes the old actors' saw. Two hard-working actresses are doing their level best to prove the laughs are worth the effort in Theatre LaB Houston's sharp-edged production of Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy's The Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives. Deborah Hope and Dee Macaluso successfully take on the chameleonic challenge of Gaffney and Najimy's multi-character comic sketches, delivering plenty of laughs and more than a bit of emotional insight.

The Kathy and Mo Show is a somewhat unusual selection for Theatre LaB, which in its first couple of seasons has generally featured more thematically pointed off-Broadway material. This show is not really a play, but a comedy revue with a lightly feminist subtext, and its playwright/comediennes have performed it in televised versions that fans should be happy to compare with the local team's. Hope and Macaluso, briskly directed by Ron Jones, deliver a fast-paced, thoroughly polished performance, doing equitable comic justice to the authors' material.

The sketches range from angel-like "Supreme Beings" trying to work out the troublesome details of creation ("How about reproduction?" "Sex?" "Okay. But who's gonna have the babies?"), to parodic feminist performance artists valiantly declaiming "SisterWomanSister," to barstool cowboys trying to flirt and stay upright at the same time. The two acts comprise about a dozen blackout sketches, most only a few minutes long, with the actors quickly changing a prop or two to get into the next characters. White robes and very impressive wings establish the angels; a backward gimme cap and a mass of troublesome curls mark a bragging frat boy and his date; interchangeable tits and shoulder pads set up a puckish parody of Shakespeare (it doesn't really work, but it's funny anyway).

Gaffney and Najimy's jokes are mostly softballs (Supreme Being: "Don't you think the white people will resent not having any color?"), and the success of the pieces rests primarily on the relative interest of each of the characters. Hope and Macaluso are particularly effective in the cross-dressed roles, as matched or mismatched couples or, in "Period Piece," hilariously portraying men on the rag: yet another male occasion for loudmouth whining, bragging and high-fiving.

The sketches are in fact stronger when they veer away from straight comedy to something more complex, a developed interest in the lives of the characters. "Las Hermanas," which closes Act One, follows a couple of middle-aged ladies on the trail of feminist hipness, trying to order at a New Age restaurant and flattering their community-college women's studies teacher. The jokes are diverting ("We learned all about bi-sexists, lesbanese, even celebastics..."), but the gags become secondary when one of the women, "Aunt Matty," drifts into a soliloquy about her favorite nephew's coming out to her, his favorite aunt. It's lightly done, and depends heavily on Macaluso's precise performance, but it's very effective as both comedy and storytelling.

There are other good bits, including the funny and poignant "Hank and Karen Sue," in which sodden Hank (Macaluso) drunkenly courts Karen Sue (Hope), pushing her to a moment of melancholy self-reflection. There are also a couple of clunkers, but the good sketches are strong comedy and linger in the mind like good theater. Throughout the evening, Macaluso shows a bit more range, but both actors are adept and engaging.

If nothing else there's a lesson here about TV comedy, which has largely degenerated into a series of cynical one-joke sketches mostly built on the premise that (other) people are stupid and corrupt. The best comics (e.g., Richard Pryor, Robin Williams) know that's only part of the story, and Gaffney and Najimy are working in a similarly humane, enlivening tradition. As represented by Deborah Hope and Dee Macaluso, it's a tradition that deserves carrying on. And at times they even make it look easy.

-- Michael King

The Kathy and Mo Show will run through June 18 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.


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