Laughing Stock

“Laughing Stock” is Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Charles Morey’s love letter to the world of theater. And like most love letters, it’s liable not to mean much if intercepted by a third party.

Morey wrote and directed the show, which is about a small New England summer-stock theater trying its hand at repertory — that is, preparing three shows at once, and then performing them on alternating nights. The dogged (but increasingly weary) director is Gordon Page (Anderson Matthews), who lives for the summers in the humid 200-year-old barn, doing plays on a tiny stage for audiences who sit on uncomfortable folding chairs.

The plays are “Charley’s Aunt,” “Hamlet” and a new adaptation of “Dracula” written by Gordon himself. (“No royalties,” he says, grinning — one of many inside jokes about the world of theater, especially when you realize that by having the character write his own version of “Dracula,” it saves Morey from having to deal with royalties, too).

His small troupe of actors includes the impossibly ditzy Mary (an over-the-top Julie-Anne Liechty), the swaggering peacock Tyler (Kaleo Griffith), a forgetful old codger (Richard Mathews) and his partner (Patricia Fraser), a too-good-for-summer-stock fathead (Max Robinson), and three summer interns. There’s also a production assistant (Joyce Cohen) who seems to have a past with Gordon, and a dreary psycho-lesbian co-director (Anne Stewart Mark).

Chief among them, though, is Jack Morris (Robert J. Hamilton), a young man who is about ready to give up on acting and go to law school instead. Will this ragtag group of misfits come together to get the shows up in time, have an awesome summer, and find what made them become actors in the first place? Gee, d’ya think?

Morey clearly has great affection for all the traditions, pains and triumphs of this world, and it shows in the details. The longest monologues are about the travails of a would-be professional actor. It is, ultimately, the good performances that make all the bad ones worthwhile.

Unfortunately, little attempt is made to universalize the situation. This is never about Everyman’s quest to Overcome the Odds and do The Impossible; it’s about actors and their craft, nothing more, nothing less. There are many, many lines, jokes and references that lose their punch unless the viewer is already familiar with “Charley’s Aunt,” “Hamlet” and “Dracula.”

Do you know that “Charley’s Aunt” centers around a dress and that “Hamlet’s” Ophelia is supposed to be young and that “Dracula” is based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler? Not everyone does, but “Laughing Stock” assumes it anyway, among other things.

The show’s tone varies depending on the scene. The opening night of “Dracula” is an all-out farce, a well-timed comedy of errors (although, frankly, jokes about shows gone awry have been done before). The final moments, after closing night, are maudlin. The characters switch gears, too, with Tyler and Mary as caricatures for most of the show, then “real people” at the end. The transition is too abrupt.

Though well-acted and benefiting from the best of intentions, “Laughing Stock” is too limited in its scope to include everyone, and at nearly 3 hours is far too long to sustain itself. In describing what it’s like to tell fondly remembered theater stories to non-actors, one of the characters aptly describes how “Laughing Stock” will probably come across to the average viewer: “They’ll nod and smile, but they won’t understand.”

Problem No. 1 with the writer and director being the same person: No one can say, "Hey, maybe we should make this thing a lot shorter...."