Monday, April 26, 2010


Mr. Monk and the Hilarious Hooey

By M.A. Peel
I saw the revival of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor this weekend with Mater. The New York Times didn’t like it either in 1989 (Frank Rich) nor today (Charles Isherwood). I’m not usually a fan of farce (high or low) or slapstick, or endless double entendres or playing broad, but this show is a delight.

I got excellent orchestra seats nine rows from the stage thanks to a 50% discount code that appeared on the Monk Facebook page just as after the series ended. Thanks very much, Mr. Monk. It’s a thrill to sit close to a Broadway stage because you really feel the live energy. If you sit in the back, it’s like watching TV.

Isherwood and Rich quibble about the plot of Tenor. Kind of makes them look silly. They are SO missing the point. Let me explain it to them and you with a perfect, appropriated description from Gary Giddins (via James Wolcott): it’s “absolute hooey, but it is a hooey of master craftspeople, working together like apprentice in a Renaissance studio, each one a specialist in light or fabric or hands or eyes, held in balance by their master’s supervision. In this instance, the master was director Stanley Tucci.” (OK, Giddins was actually talking about Joan Crawford’s film Sadie McKee directed by Clarence Brown.)

Sparkling hooey isn’t about plot. It’s about ridiculous set-ups that play out in inane ways, with just a soupcon of wit. It’s actually the ensemble of pros that make for the laughter. For me, Tony Shalhoub is the master of the subtle look within the over-the-top lunacy going on around him.

Shalhoub’s impresario is a man used to giving orders and getting what he wants. It’s the control of his performance that I loved. He is a very elegant man, and you can feel the intelligence below the reaction shots. I find that very rich and appealing.

Anthony LaPaglia had the harder role, Il Stupendo. He looked less at ease in his roll than Shalhoub, although his confusion in the second act was very, very funny.

The discovery for me was the young Justin Bartha who plays Max, the nerd factotum who blossoms before our eyes. He’s in The Hangover, which I now must see, and the National Treasure series with Nicolas Cage where he plays Riley Poole. Don’t think too many of his under 30 film friends have the chops for the stage that he has.

And so I found myself laughing and laughing at stupid lines and silly moments in my own willing suspension of disbelief.

It was a beautiful day in Gotham, and this hilarious hooey shared with Mater felt like such a gift. I don’t laugh enough (with a notable exception on my recent trip to China): I’m an Ox, and so I got a of cosmic dose seriousness (with a little artistry thrown in from the Libra side). Performing art of any kind that makes people laugh is extremely important to the human condition. It literally helps to lighten our load, to counterbalance the veil of tears that is so much of our human equation.

Preston Sturges knew this. That scene at the end of Sullivan’s Travels when the convicts and churchgoers start laughing while watching the 1934 Walt Disney cartoon Playful Pluto with Mickey Mouse and Pluto is one of the great moments in cinema.

The dedication at the film’s beginning:
"To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated."

The film’s last line, spoken by John L. Sullivan
"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh! Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan! Boy!"

(crossposted at M.A. Peel)

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