Metamorphosis and the Movies

“I wanted to laugh,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley about the genesis of her latest play. She’d been working on The Jacksonian, a very dark comedy set in Civil Rights-era Mississippi, and decided she could do with a change of pace. She paced it up tremendously, drawing from a long-time love of the classic films of the 1920s, their slapstick antics, sometimes subversive examinations of power—and humor—and indelible stars, from Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton to Gary Cooper, the Keystone Cops, and Groucho Marx’s longstanding straight woman Margaret Dumont. The resulting play—called Laugh, appropriately enough—features a clever and headstrong leading lady, a young man with more heart than he knows, and a treacherous world of opportunists and greed, landing our heroes in Hollywood at its most glamorous and toxic.

Set in the West of the 1920s, Laugh follows Mabel, left orphaned but wealthy by a dynamite accident at a gold mine. She’s shipped off to a calculating aunt who coerces her nephew Roscoe to seduce Mabel to control her fortune. What Roscoe lacks in smarts, bravery, and seduction he more than makes up for in his talent for dodging confrontation—and when their courtship gets awkward, he suggests the ultimate escapist activity: an afternoon at the pictures. As the two develop a shared love of silent movies, they plan for greater things, which leads them to a train ride west, an ill-placed cream pie, a run-in with the would-be king of a pornographic valentine industry, a long drive off a short Santa Monica pier, more than one secret identity, and adventure in spades. Henley’s slapstick comedy—receiving its world premiere at Studio this spring—explores the romance of Hollywood, and ultimately a Hollywood-caliber romance.

Laugh offers the many and deep pleasures of accomplished physical comedy, but within its physical and plot calisthenics, the play offers an exploration of the power of transformation from a playwright at the top of her craft. Mabel starts off as an explosion-smudged bumpkin and teaches herself how to be a star through a steady diet of silent pictures and observation. Roscoe takes on disguises to make up for the worst of his cowardice and indecision and discovers that he may have sold himself short his whole life. The other twenty-eight characters are played by four versatile performers who take on roles across gender and age while channeling the spirit and silhouette of the silent film era. The play itself ends in a slightly mysterious place where all disguise is stripped away—including those that kept Mabel and Roscoe from ever quite seeing themselves honestly.

Henley’s play offers madcap adventure and slapstick comedy (Mud fights! Pratfalls! Pies to the face!) with the same keen insight into the strange, funny, and deeply human foibles of relationships that brought the loving, oddball family of Crimes of the Heart to life and saw through to the core of loving dysfunction in The Jacksonian. All of Henley’s characters are full of bravery and cowardice in turn, fighting for the work and people they love, stumbling—somehow—into more resilient, more empathic, slightly better versions of themselves.

Adrien-Alice Hansel