Fall from Innocents Abroad

"Against the assault of Laughter," Satan said, "nothing can stand." Actually, Mark Twain said Satan said that. He is probably right; to mix a sacrilegious metaphor, humor works in mysterious ways. It certainly does in the collection of lesser-known Twain stories that The Company OnStage is presenting as one-acts (through January 15): Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup, and Extracts from Adam's Diary coupled with Diary for Eve.

Though not necessarily classics (a term Twain once defined as "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read"), the stories are delightful samplings from this great humorist. "Guides," he pronounced in The Innocents Abroad, "cannot master the subtleties of the American joke"; Twain, that most American of helmsmen, leads the way in these offerings.

Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup is a night-in-the-life snowballing domestic comedy about the outlandish precautions an overly concerned mother takes to prevent her infant from catching the dread illness of the title -- laryngitis -- that's spreading through town. Since, apparently, turpentine in pine wood has medicinal purposes, Mrs. McWilliams has her child chew on a stick as a preventive measure. When the baby suddenly develops a cough, Mrs. McWilliams, in a panic, tries all sorts of home remedies. Scoffing at a teaspoonful of medicine, "as if we had a whole year before us to save the child in," she ups the dosage.

When the doctor arrives and of course informs her that baby isn't dying but merely suffering from something lodged in her throat, Mrs. McWilliams (whom Twain features in two other stories, "Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning" and "The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm") is "as mad as if he had offered her a personal affront." This old-fashioned tall tale is laconically told by Mr. McWilliams, the bemused husband/father who tries to be reasonable and tolerant but who recognizes that "women cannot receive even the most palpably judicious suggestion without arguing it; that is, married women."

The Company OnStage mounts the story as a staged reading. Director Joyce Randall McNally dresses Carl Masterson up in white wig, mustache, string tie and suspenders, and has him recite it as Mark Twain in front of an audience. Though not too bad at delivering folksy whimsy and wisdom, Hal Holbrook he ain't, for there are inherent difficulties in a staged reading, a performance that first and foremost calls attention to the text. The speaker basically has two tools to engage the audience: voice and gesture. Masterson is not as adept with these as he could be.

The story is a little hard to follow at first. It begins, "Well, to go back to where I was before I digressed to explain to you how that frightful and incurable disease, membranous croup, was ravaging the town and driving all mothers mad with terror, I called Mrs. McWilliams' attention to little Penelope and said..." Much of what follows is dialogue, and though the force of the narrative does ultimately become clear and the breezy vernacular takes over, the actor would have helped things enormously if he had, for instance, spoken slower, varied sentence rhythm, paused in strategic places, developed specific gestures for each character, been more consistently in control of voice inflections.

McNally's staging also undercuts the downhome charms of Twain's words. Making the actor walk from podium to chair and back several times during the reading is awkward and distracting. The lighting is underused. And having the second-act set onstage risks inviting the mind to wander, like a student gazing out a classroom window.

The second one-act, IThe Diaries of Adam and EveI, is an adaptation of Twain's affectionate, touching stories about you-know-who. Television and movie actor/director David Birney (Bridget Loves BernieI) conceived it; cutting and pasting and editing Twain's words, he wisely did not presume to add his own. He performed the play in 1989 with his then-wife Meredith Baxter Birney (Family Ties) for PBS' American Playhouse.

("Extracts from Adam's Diary," written in 1893, begins in inimitable Twain style: "[Note. -- I translated a portion of this diary some years ago, and a friend of mine printed a few copies in an incomplete form, but the public never got them. Since then I have deciphered some more of Adam's hieroglyphics, and think he has now become sufficiently important as a public character to justify this publication. -- M.T.]" "Diary for Eve," which first appeared in the December 1905 edition of Harper's Magazine, is, as Twain puts it, "Translated from the Original.")

Set up as juxtaposing diary entries, the play chronicles the lives of our first family. Adam thinks this new creature with the long hair is in the way. Eve, following what she calls "other experiments," is particularly curious about what she thinks is a man but might very well be a reptile, perhaps merely architecture. Adam, a bit dense, doesn't like that Eve has the ability to name everything, like the dodo; in fact, what with her constant talking and posting Keep Off the Grass signs, his life isn't as happy as it once was. Eve, who thinks she's taken all the work of naming things off his hands, is proud that she talks all day and finds herself to be very interesting -- and believes she'd be twice as interesting if she had another to talk to.

Adam doesn't understand why Eve continues to fasten names to things that don't need them -- like fish -- and don't come when they're called anyway. One day Adam spots trouble: "She has taken up with a snake now."

A year later, Cain arrives (Adam believes that Eve has trapped the baby), and, after figuring out what species this creature is, they learn to live lovingly ever after.

Kelly Manison supplies Eve with an earnest innocence befitting a girl who believes there are too many stars in some places and not enough in others. But she fails to imbue her with melancholic yearning, for Adam frequently ignores and misunderstands her. Paul Locklear is unfortunately out of his element as Adam; stiff and awkward, he's not as much an endearing clod as he is a sparkless orator. Here, too, the lighting is ineffective, and the set, dominated by a vine-covered gazebo-like structure, has no real function in the action and prevents the actors from substantially enhancing their characters through movement.

The reason to go to the the Company OnStage's production is to hear Twain's words, which ring out, strong and idiosyncratic. Or maybe you should just read the texts, and read Birney's adaptation, in which he judiciously takes out some sexist language but mistakenly removes some terrific observational riffs.

After all, as Twain wrote elsewhere, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.

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