Tommy On Top: farce shouldn’t have to try this hard to be funny

It isn’t often that I can’t find anything good to say about a show. I enjoy theatre in general—I wouldn’t do this otherwise—and most shows have enough positive qualities to mitigate any negative ones. Sadly, this is not the case for the total mess that is PrideArts’ staging of Chris Woodley’s gay farce, “Tommy On Top.” From Woodley’s script (with its weirdly outdated ideas about coming out, its many flat jokes—Woodley can’t even make hay with a gay Trump-supporter character in Hollywood—and way, way too much going on that just plain makes no sense), to a way-too-presentational blocking pattern, to weird props, to staging decisions that can’t decide if this is a farce or a meta-farce, to everyone just trying way too hard to make us laugh, this one doesn’t work on any level.

I hate writing this kind of thing; I have directed almost forty plays and I know how hard everyone works. And there are a few positives here, such as a nifty confetti-canon moment, which I’ll get to; they simply are not enough to justify recommending that you spend your money and time on it. Even a very friendly opening night audience could only find laughter intermittently, which is really bad news for a farce.

Indulge me for a moment. “Farce” is a brand of comedy that makes use of fast-paced dialogue and action to create humor. In its own way, if it is well-written and everyone gets their timing down, it shouldn’t be all that difficult. Everyone in the audience wants to laugh, after all. We’re ready for it. And there are two main kinds of farce: the kind that mimics reality but in extremis and the kind that is so meta that it is making fun of itself. You can make either one work, but not both in the same show.

When characters manically move about the stage to comic effect, they may not be very “realistic” at that moment, but good actors and a clever director can ground even absurd movement in real emotional need. This is necessary: we won’t find something funny if it has no point or makes no sense, unless we understand that we are watching a show that consciously knows that it is being unrealistic. Example: at one point here, characters suddenly pull out fake boxes of popcorn and settle in to watch what promises to be a good fight. Now, that could be funny. And it would be if we as an audience had been conditioned to expect such bizarrely self-aware behavior. Here, however, we are not.

Laughter can’t be forced, and that is one major issue here: everyone, from the director to the cast, is just so focused on being funny that they forget the fact that, even in farce, humor comes from our acceptance of characters as human; that is, even if they are bizarre people, they need to be acting like people. And people just don’t act the way these characters too often do. Real people don’t stand for lengthy periods of time facing away from everyone else in the room in order to allow something weird to happen behind them. Real people don’t walk into a bathroom with a small bottle of liquor and, within a short time, emerge only to collapse on a bed, absolutely out cold. Real people don’t hear a knock on a hotel room door and then scramble around for several minutes before answering it…and real people wouldn’t wait in the hall if they did…or at least they’d complain about it. Real people don’t stumble around a room blinded by a mask they have on for some inexplicable reason without ever thinking to take it off. The end result here is that none of this is really funny; it’s odd and ridiculous, but when our minds are preoccupied with the thought of how unrealistic it all is we can’t find the humor.

Bits might work anyway, as is the case here when Ryan Cason’s Tommy Miller passes out on that bed. Miller is a young closeted gay actor up for an Oscar whose agent Eddie (also gay, the aforementioned Trumpist, played by Brian Boller) threatens him and his boyfriend if they do anything to screw up his one chance of success, doing a lot of yelling and hurling a lot of insults. Why Tommy would hire this guy is problematic, but why he keeps him when he is this insufferable and keeps making both Tommy’s boyfriend and sister upset is impossible to conceive. Anyway, our hero is passed out on the bed, and his sister Molly (Theresa Leibhart, a human ball of energy and one of this play’s high points) and lover George (Patrick Gosney, instantly likable and fun and the other high point) hear one of those knocks…a new agent Tommy has invited over (Sandra Franco). In the ensuing chaos, quickly improvising a way to hide the sleeping actor, they cover him with pillows, and George ends up sitting on his torso and using Tommy’s dangling legs as his own. It is a brilliant visual move, and Gosney’s innocent face sells it. Far less effective is when he thrashes Eddie, slamming his body (switched with a stuffed dummy by then) around the room…as if the new agent wouldn’t hear all of that commotion. It’s harder to sell that.

Again, I must emphasize that this sort of thing would probably be hilarious if it came as part of the characteristic action of people we’ve come to expect it from. Eddie could get away with it (though he wouldn’t be funny because he’s Eddie). But George is way too nice to be believable beating the crap out of someone. The new agent is supposed to be highly successful and bright: she would never miss such goings-on even if they did happen. I acknowledge that I may be conflating scenes a bit here, but the play’s repetitive structure blurs my memory: Which character is left standing too long in the hallway which time? Who tosses Eddie off the balcony which time, and why? Etc. I feel as if Woodley’s script uses the same jokes and bits over and over. (I lost track of the number of jokes about The Clapper. This guy has never even heard of the Rule of Three.)

Farce demands that the playwright gives us honesty, in the form of characters we understand and a plot that makes sense, and then uses both to structure the insanity. Ideally, the director’s job is just to bring it all to life on the stage. Here, Jay Espano, who is also PrideArts’ Artistic Director, just doesn’t have enough to work with, and what he has is so illogical that it loses a lot of the audience, so he tries (too hard) to go over the top. But for every wonderful line (such as telling George, who tends to take jokes too far, “I said ‘improvise,’ not ‘traumatize'”), there is a moment like the prolonged (and very loud) fart joke sequence—a normally sure, if cheap, laugh-getter that is so out of the play’s style that it barely works. It’s as if two Woodleys wrote this, competing with each other for control, and both of them lost. Sadly, so will you if you see this show.

Tommy on Top plays at PrideArts through July 16.

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