“Look at all you’ve accomplished!” Dionysus says to the human beings near the end of Ken Ludwig’s new one, Gods of Comedy, running through March 31 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. “Total chaos! Even I was impressed!”
A good thumbnail for this nutty, mildly entertaining show. Classics professor Ralph (Jevon McFerrin, channeling a bald, standoffish Justin Timberlake) finds the manuscript of a lost play, Andromeda by Euripides. The find of any century, as the Princeton audience knew: many groans and gasps when the manuscript gets into trouble. Lost, trashed, shredded, swiped, it’s this show’s McGuffin.
Ralph’s colleague Daphne (Shay Vawn), who loses it, clutches a magic amulet and calls on the gods of ancient Greece for help. Instead, she gets the gods of comedy, Dionysus (show-stealer Brad Oscar) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro). The gag is that the gods don’t really do much. They appear, they add to the chaos. “When mortals are with us,” Dionysus says, “they start dreaming, they get wild, they want to explode!” But the people, not the gods, create the problems and solve them; the gods just kibbitz (“Alexander? He wasn’t so great,” says Thalia, who has apparently slept with all of human history) and run around.
A big nod to Jason Sherwood’s sets, one of a sun-splashed Greek roadside stand, another of Daphne’s well-stocked office, and the pièce de résistance, a stunning autumn night on a festive college campus. (The Dean, played by Keira Naughton, has made the manuscript the star of a big funders’ banquet.) The sets and Brian Gale’s vivid lighting keep the action vibrant.
There are laughs, good exchanges (Ralph: “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes?” Dean: “Cataracts?”), and some fine hugger-mugger; this is a Ludwig property, after all. While invisible, Daphne and her gods get to hear folks say what they really think; when it gets dishy, the gods break out the popcorn. Brooklyn (the amazing Steffanie Leigh), a movie star who, hoping to play the lead in the movie of Andromeda, is loving up Ralph, has a solo moment in which she belts out (for no reason) “Tomorrow” from Annie. And the Plautus-like running around in Act Three almost, almost reaches critical mass.
But, alas, there’s a first-drafty feeling to Gods of Comedy that makes it seem like a 1970s sitcom. At the end, no relationships have gone anywhere. Except for some snogging with Brooklyn, Ralph fends off any meaningful anything. Daphne may go on to better things, and I wish we cared more. At the end, the gods of comedy stride off to new hijinks, already forgetting the travails of Daphne and Ralph, as we are. Not that there aren’t smiles throughout.
“Life should be an adventure,” Dionysus tells us. “If it’s not – go back and fix it!” Good words for us all.