Its title, its playful poster, its sleek chic showroom of a set, and its marketing suggest that “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” is a shallow romantic comedy, telling the story of Joe and Cleo over some two decades of their marriage. But it takes only a short time into the play, which opens tonight at the Cherry Lane, to realize that playwright Alan Hruska aims for something more sophisticated – a relationship comedy as Theater of the Absurd. It takes even less time to realize this mash-up doesn’t work.
When Cleo tells Joe in a restaurant that she’s pregnant, a waitress serves the recently minted couple a blank menu. When they are in the hospital after Cleo gives birth, the nurse tells them their child went temporarily missing, because on the way to the nursery she stopped off to the Ladies Room and left him there. When they are middle-aged and wealthy, a gun-toting, hyper-articulate burglar invades their home, first demanding a wire transfer, and then agreeing to a game of roulette. The burglar shoots; no bullets. Joe wins. The burglar wants to charge him for the “revivifying” experience.
There’s more like this – an encounter with a con man art dealer in Venice; huddling on a chandelier (which has become a buoy) after a tidal wave. Yes, yes, we get it: the couple’s journey through life is buffeted by random acts from an uncaring universe. But, with just a few exceptions, such as an extended sequence about an adulterous affair and its effect on the couple and their friends, the scenes come off as a jumble of insufficiently developed sketches – neither funny nor fresh nor especially thought provoking; just odd.
The main problem is that the characters’ behavior feels fake from the very first scene: Joe stops Cleo on the street and tells her, before he even introduces himself, that their relationship is at a crossroads. If this sounds funny, it doesn’t play that way. In a later scene, when Cleo tells Joe she’s pregnant and asks for his immediate, “instinctive” reaction, he says: “I think we should have the child. I will choose a profession, exert myself devotedly to it, earn immense sums, buy us a house, and we and our children shall live happily ever after. “
One can easily read this as a commentary on the nearly automated attitudes of the American middle class. But it’s a tired insight, and Joe talks like this much of the time, which makes him not just unreal but uninteresting.
It doesn’t help that the actor who portrays Joe, Jayce Bartok, gives such deliberately unnatural line readings that director Chris Eigeman has to share the blame. Of the three other cast members, two portray multiple characters (in various accents) that exist solely to populate and perpetuate the sketches. Only Katya Campbell as Cleo escapes virtually unscathed.
Watching “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” winds up offering a lesson in the Theater of the Absurd, but not one the creative team intended; it’s a realization of what the absurdist classics do right that this new play does wrong. For all the surreal nightmare that Martha and George descend into in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” – or the world that traps Tobias and Agnes and their unwanted guests in Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” – these married characters start out as believable people rooted in a recognizable reality. Even Vladimir and Estragon speak in plain English (or French, depending on what production of “Waiting for Godot” you’re watching) about tangible things. “You stink of garlic,” Estragon tells Vladimir after they’ve embraced in a gesture of forgiveness. That’s a relationship!
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down
at the Cherry Lane Theater
Written by Alan Hruska
Directed by Chris Eigeman
Kevin Judge (scenic design) Jennifer Caprio (costume design) Matthew J. Fick (lighting design) Peter Salett (original music, sound design)
Cast: Jayce Bartok, Katya Campbell, Maury Ginsberg, Amy Hargreaves
Running time: one hour, 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $59 and $79
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down is set to run through October 10, 2015