Monday, November 24, 2014

Drawing Room Comedy As Fabulous Invalid

The cast of Peter Snoad's Identity Crisis. 


At Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, a quiet riot is taking place. Peter Snoad’s play Identity Crisis, directed by Jackie Davis, has a diverse audience sending laughter up into the high ceiling of the Hall’s third floor playing space.

Hopefully the play won’t fly under the radar of the Boston theater scene, or the eyes and ears of those who write about it, but that is entirely possible. The playwright doesn’t come with a New York pedigree, the playing space isn’t in a trendy area, and the play itself is that kind of comedy that goes in and out of fashion with theater folk and critics alike.

Identity Crisis is a drawing room comedy or, more appropriately a living room comedy. Who really hangs out in drawing rooms these days? Like many classic comedies and farces it involves a marriage, social conventions, class, a little sex and, oh, Race.  The premise is simple and seems like it escaped from the mind of the love child of Alan Ayckbourn and Lydia Diamond.

A layabout neo-hippie, pot grower named Alan is finally getting his act together. He is about to wed into a wealthy, conservative Jewish family. On the eve of the ceremony, the rest of the family takes off to the rehearsal dinner while Alan waits behind for his Best Man - an old college friend from his frat boy days whom he hasn’t seen in person for a little while. When the friend arrives, he is Black. Not in black makeup, he is… a Black man.

His friend explains that he has turned Black, and it is slowly happening to more people around the country, (”It’s accelerated since Obama was elected.”) He has reason to believe it is going to happen to Alan as well. The process can take months or it can happen in just a couple of hours. Alan could wake up Black on his wedding day. He might even start turning Black as he walks down the aisle in front of his conservative in-laws!

The machinations used by the characters to deal with this situation are the maneuvers we know from classic farce and, of course, sitcoms. But what makes watching these tropes and conventions so pleasant is that the characters and the premise allow the playwright to bounce around a multitude of ideas and themes about our “post racial society.” There are some wicked laughs and some groaners, but it is all played lightly, - it doesn’t have the underlying sadness that, say, Ayckbourn brings to his comedies. That isn’t a criticism, it’s more like a distinction.

My thought though, as I watched this living room play, is that this particular type of comedy is perennial because the content can change easily with the times, a fact often left out by critics who occasionally proclaim the form inert or dead.

But it is always alive, because we are part of it. Audiences have watched Earnest and Algernon finagle their way around social conventions in their drawing room, just as they watched Orgon's family try to take off his religious blinders, and watched Felix and Oscar struggle as newly single men in a divorced world.

I know, I know, it’s a little way down from Wilde to Simon, but I’m still always amazed at how potently the theater can animate our societal foibles with this genre. In many cases, these living room comedies do a far better job than more stylized and experimental efforts which are celebrated, sometimes deservedly, (sometimes not) for their ambition, regardless of the coherence or thoroughness of their ideas.

Currently on the boards in Boston, there’s another play about an identity crisis from the same genre. Bad Jews at Speakeasy Stage is getting critical praise and entertaining audiences.

So, the living room comedy is dead, long live the living room comedy!


Identity Crisis is at Hibernian Hall until December 7th
Bad Jews is at Speakeasy Stage until November 29th


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