Funny Business 

A pair of comedies come up short.

click to enlarge Jeff White in Is He Dead?
  • Jeff White in Is He Dead?

I took in a pair of screwball comedies this weekend and can say in all sincerity that I can't remember when I haven't laughed so much.

That's probably a cruel thing to say, especially since both casts are working so hard to give their audiences a thrill. Then again, all that work may be the real problem.

The best comedy, no matter how physical or choreographed, appears spontaneous and effortless. The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Playhouse on the Square and Is He Dead? at Germantown Community Theatre both look like hard, sweaty, back-breaking labor, and until that changes, neither play will get the laughter they deserve.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a somewhat misleading title since there's not a production number to be found between the script's covers. Instead, it's an homage to Agatha Christie with a big shout-out to the films of Bob Hope. It's about a mad killer known for slashing musical-comedy stars set loose in a mansion full of them during a blizzard.

Ann Marie Hall, one of Memphis' most gifted comic actors, is cast almost too perfectly as Elsa Von Grossenknueten, an eccentric older woman known for investing heavily in Broadway musicals. It's a character Hall could play in her sleep, and although she nails the part, it's not terribly interesting for anybody remotely acquainted with Hall's previous work.

The same might be said about David Foster and Michael Gravois, who do a great job playing characters we've seen them play better before. The rest of this nearly all-star cast is filled by actors who mug and shout their way through an unsubtle show that's sorely wanting for a speck of honesty.

Although his character is loosely based on Bob Hope, Stephen Andrew Parker portrays comedian Eddie McCuen as Burt Lahr's Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, and Bryan Robinson's unoriginal take on police officer Michael Kelly is further proof that Humphrey Bogart really is inimitable.

Versatile character actors Kim Justis and Irene Crist, both known for their ability to find the humanity in over-the-top characters, can't resist the urge to overact, while David Ryan turns in a performance so disastrous it's tempting to avert one's eyes.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a frequently produced play, and it can be very funny. But no matter how absurd the characters, it's the actor's job to make them real. In spite of all the talent onstage, that hasn't happened this time around.

At Playhouse on the Square through

October 18th

Director Marler Stone has brought a lot of energy and detail to Mark Twain's "lost" play Is He Dead?, and the cast, though lacking the star power of Musical Comedy Murders, seems to have a much better handle on comedy basics. But when a play by a giant like Mark Twain is lost for nearly 100 years, there's a fair chance that it was lost for a very good reason.

Is He Dead?, a farce about a poor French painter who fakes his death and poses as a woman in order to increase the value of his paintings, is interesting as the celebrated author's sole attempt at playwriting. But it simply doesn't measure up even against Twain's lesser works.

Jeff White is exceptional and unfussy as the underdog painter Jean-François Millet. The simplicity with which he approaches his gender-bending predicament would be refreshing if only the circumstances of the drama were more compelling.

Is He Dead? was adapted for modern audiences by All in the Timing playwright David Ives (another indication that the script is wanting), but the first third of the show is overburdened with expurgation, and not very funny. To make up for this, Stone & Co. have rushed the dialogue and inserted bits of physical humor that, while nobly intended, don't earn their keep.

A solid supporting cast is led by Randal Cooper as a scheming American painter named Chicago and Angela Fredriksson, whose Chaplinesque turn in a trousers role brings some of the evening's broadest smiles.

Twain fans may still wish to visit for the sheer novelty of experiencing a new work. There are moments, though few and far between, when the master satirist's voice rings out loud and clear.

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