Strange as it might sound, tuna fish, Ronald Reagan, the Infant of Prague and Sally Jessy Raphael all fit with perfect logic into Christopher Durang's wonderfully bizarre satire Laughing Wild. Set in the 1980s, when Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Phil Donohue still had cultural cachet, the show attacks a world gone mad with bad politics and even worse popular culture.
As un-Christmassy as it gets, Durang's hysterical screed against our modern landscape lambastes a slew of contemporary crimes: Right-wing politics, Catholic ideology about condoms, New Age spirituality and Christians everywhere get a stab or two from Durang's razor-sharp wit. Deliciously irreverent (especially this month), the playwright imagines the Christian god as a sniveling tyrant, the sort of mean-spirited jerk who "is silent on the holocaust but involves himself in the Tony Awards." These are the sentiments one might expect from a playwright whose work includes Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But the terrain of Laughing Wild is as bleak as it gets. In fact, the show would be tragic were it not so laugh-till-your-face-hurts funny, especially as it plays out in the deft hands of the wily folks at Unhinged Theatre Company.
Durang has shaped his fiery knife-blade of a play into two long monologues, followed by a dream sequence that conjures up a fantastically strange exchange between a talk show host and an antiquated Catholic icon. It's a demanding two-character show that needs a pair of powerful performers. And that's exactly what Unhinged delivers in the form of Ann C. James and Chris Jimmerson.
In one of her strongest Houston performances in years, James burns up the stage during her 30-minute monologue, portraying an angry woman who rants against a world full of people who don't have "sufficient humility to question" themselves. "Mother Teresa makes me sick," she declares. And then she asks the audience, "Have you ever noticed how sexual intercourse makes you want to commit suicide?"
Clearly there's something wrong with this woman. After all, her story starts with a recent memory about the grocery store, where she punched a man on the head because he wouldn't move out of her way. After the incident, she screamed, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell!" to a cab driver before falling into the gutter while "laughing wild amid the severest woe." That deeply poetic line is lifted from Samuel Beckett's very dark Happy Days, another play about trying to make it through a world filled with bitter disappointments. When James utters the line, she imbues it with both the gorgeous woe and the macabre absurdity that is all around us.
Following James's rant is Jimmerson's quieter monologue. Bubbling with the hand-wringing worries of an ordinary malcontent, Jimmerson hunches over to discuss his character's sorry existence. His life just happens to include a strange encounter at the grocery story with a woman who walked up out of the blue and bonked him over the head for no apparent reason. In this small way, the man and the woman are connected, but it's only the thinnest thread -- which is part of Durang's point. Heartbreaking loneliness is a lot of what makes our world so screwed up. Even worse, we haven't the foggiest notion of how to connect with one another. The man talks about how he joined a group at Central Park to experience "harmonic convergence" with the natural world but just ended up irritated with the people around him. Jimmerson's character also gives voice to some of Durang's most overtly political statements, including a savage harangue against the right-wing, Christian idea that AIDS was invented to punish gays.
During Act II, the two characters meet up in their dreams. In one especially memorable section, the man becomes the Infant of Prague, an obscure Catholic figure that Durang reportedly has said represents outdated Catholic ideology about birth control. The woman "interviews" the Infant, who knows nothing about condoms, but he's an expert on the history of his own gown. This is an unrelenting attack on people who are against the use of condoms or teaching kids about condoms, and it works because it's so wildly over the top.
Directed by Rutherford Cravens with dead-on comic timing, Laughing Wild ends with exquisitely nervous tenderness, just the way a tirade should. The man and the woman reach out to hold each other's hand, facing the world's absurdities together at last, if only for one sane moment.
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