I’ve been going to see a lot of theatre lately. Some of it has been funny, some sad, some challenging — but one in particular hit all three of those points, and more. After watching Robert Shearman deliver an entirely charming live commentary of his now ten-year-old classic Doctor Who episode “Dalek,” I had the opportunity to see a staging of one of his earliest plays, Easy Laughter. An alternative history that imagines the havoc wrought by xenophobia and genocide through the eyes of a single family unit, the play was, in some ways, “Dalek” writ large, without the trappings of a sci-fi background to save us.
In its New York premiere, produced by Dirt [contained] Theatre Company and directed by Stephen Massaro, Easy Laughter aims to set the the audience’s teeth on edge from the word go. Mother Patsy (Maria Swisher) is a bit too terrified as she sneaks a drink of whiskey, alone and shaking. The patriarch Dennis (Michael Broadhurst) enters fifteen minutes later than he was expected home, promptly noting said whiskey’s depletion with unsettling disapproval. Daughter Judy (Tana Sirois) is struggling with her hair tie, assisted by brother Toby (Jay William Thomas). It’s unclear at this point what the issue will be if Judy’s hair tie is askew, but it’s horrifyingly clear that there would be an issue. That hair tie – first pink, then red – is the cause for outright repulsion later on, as Grandfather Ralph (Nick DeMatteo) arrives to complete the company.
The first act is a slow reveal, with the frenetic family’s preparations for a celebration that sort of resembles Christmas, called Christtide, in a world that sort of resembles our own. Both the holiday and the world they inhabit give way to their true form, slowly at first, before building to a jumble of hideous, menacing action. The resulting second act has to be one of the most difficult forty-five minutes I’ve seen on stage. The extent to which these five characters have gone, in a desperate attempt to maintain normalcy, structure, and painstaking politeness, is nothing short of a torment.
The performances are relentless feats of vulnerability, cruelty, mania, and desperation. I can only imagine the emotional toll it took on this remarkable company of actors night after night. All five cast members fade completely into their roles, particularly those playing children – indeed, it’s a welcome return to reality when one remembers that Sirois and Thomas are not, in fact, under the age of 10.
The staging, with the audience surrounding the stage on three of its four sides, forces everyone to observe not only the actors but ourselves. No one is allowed a reprieve. It’s a perfect underscore to the Big Questions Easy Laughter asks of us – if everyone around you is laughing through a horror show, will you join in? How will you react if one audience member in your eye-line is visibly upset, when it’s impossible to truly look away? What are we, as a community, to do with such malignant evil, and what to do with the fact that this work is just as relevant now as it was twenty years ago?
If this sounds difficult, that’s because it was – difficult, but important. Easy Laughter is an examination of the very worst of humanity, and it insists that we do not look away.
While this show has ended its run, you can still support it by voting in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.