Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fringe Review - Nightmare Without Pants - Joking Envelope - 4-1/2 stars

Tweet review - Nightmare W/out Pants - I'll blog anything you ask, just please don't send Anger Pony after me! - 4.5 stars ‪#mnfringe‬

"Release the Anger Pony."

Not to go all Jerry Maguire on Joseph Scrimshaw, but you had me at Anger Pony.

"You wanna make some paper, you gotta murder some trees."

Mom liked Nightmare Without Pants but not as much as I did for a reason we couldn't put our finger on, aside perhaps from the fact that it was unrepentantly weird.  The weirdness is half of what I loved about it, but made it a little hard for Mom to love like she has a lot of previous shows from Joking Envelope.  (Still, even Mom loved the Anger Pony.)  The other half of what I loved about Nightmare Without Pants is that it's *about* something.  Joking Envelope productions are always funny.  That's a given.  And it may be unfair to look like one is taking the laughs for granted.  I'm certainly not.  I realize, as they say, dying is easy but comedy is hard.  Comedy that provides laughs is rare.  Comedy that provides intelligent laughs even rarer.  Joseph Scrimshaw's work lives in this intelligent comedy realm.  It's just how scripts come out of his brain.  It's how he processes the world.  Scripts come out funny.  And thank God for that.  Then there's that blasted "tyranny of high expectations" thing.  Of course everyone who goes to a Scrimshaw show goes for the entertainment, and the vast majority aren't troubled with anything beyond that.  It's just us people who insist on writing about theater that start to poke and prod and ask, "But what does it MEAN?"  F**kers.

"Raise your hand if you're married and/or gay.  Great, all the responsible looking ones with hair."

This is the Joking Envelope production I've been waiting for at the Fringe since Die, Clowns! Die! (And it reminds me that I need to see more Joking Envelope stuff between Fringes when they offer it.  Other scripts like Nightmare may be cranking out of Joking Envelope all the time and I'm just missing them.)  This time, the crafty Mr. Scrimshaw has generated a production that seems like pure entertainment, and can be digested as such, but is also about a lot of really big things.  Why are people alone?  Why do some people live life perpetually happy, while others can't seem to allow themselves to be happy?  Why does love seem even more elusive the more painfully aware you are of time ticking by?  Now, none of these questions is ever stated that baldly.  But they're tucked away behind the characters' predicament.

"Welcome to Two Chairs and a Table from IKEA Arranged to Look like a Restaurant"

Special Agent Bob Jackass (Scrimshaw) has cornered Tracy (Shanan Custer) in a theater and brings her up on stage to do penance for having screwed up her taxes.  The price - she must fall in love with someone in 45 minutes or less, onstage, in front of an audience, or be confronted with… The Anger Pony.  After polling the audience for potential suitors, a Dream Man (John Riedlinger) appears.  Their relentlessly happy waitress (Anna Sundberg) is accidentally unhelpful in several ways.  Beer Can Mouth Man (John Middleton), a man with a beer can affixed to his mouth, keeps wandering through the proceedings, and has an unexpected connection to Tracy.  Tracy's bumbling quest for love on a deadline takes a number of peculiar twists and turns, including a full-cast game of Truth or Dare which ends up just getting poor Tracy further off track.

"Why can't you just have sex with me in front of all these people so I won't get in trouble for doing my taxes wrong?"

Everyone is going for broke here and are enormously funny doing it.  There are also several elements of recurring improv that everyone involved handles so deftly you could be forgiven for forgetting how easily something like even well-meaning audience participation can go off the rails.  Scrimshaw is a master at this sort of thing and it's pleasure to watch him at work.  The cast he's assembled matches him at every turn.  (How strange and wonderful - and exhausting - those rehearsals must have been.)

"He said I was a pinata full of candy and hate."

My only quibble is that, of course, I wanted to know more, to dig deeper.  In a 45 minute Fringe slot, that may not be possible.  There's a lot of balls in the air here and further character development may just not be in the cards.  Don't get me wrong, we get everything we need for both laughs and a satisfying ending with just a touch of sentiment - all well-earned.  As usual, this is top notch writing, directing and acting.  My mind kept wondering, "How did Tracy end up this way?"  I could understand the other characters getting painted with broader strokes.  But because Tracy is our central character and we're seeing her more than anyone else throughout the show, I felt like I wanted to know why she was so lonely and negative about love and life in general.  Whatever personal disasters befell her, she seems like more than a garden-variety neurotic who just *is* this way.  Both Scrimshaw's writing and Custer's performance lead me to believe there's more going on here.  Perhaps it's an entirely different play.  Dating disasters are things Scrimshaw has mined repeatedly for comedy gold before.  Tracy's hopeful moment of personal vulnerability at the end made me want more (again, this is a good thing).  I'm not asking for a happy ending.  Far from it.  One of the many things I appreciate about this production is its refusal to just lob a happy ending into our laps at the end that isn't justified.  There is hope, but not resolution, and that's as it should be.  I guess I'm just lobbying for seeing more of the complexity of Tracy's pre-Anger Pony journey revealed somehow.  Given how fast the jokes were flying, it's entirely possible I missed something.  But another thing I admired about the production was how it took the time to pause and reflect when it felt it was necessary.  It wasn't a relentless pace from beginning to end.  The story ebbed and flowed while always moving forward.  There was room for such moments.

"I won't be doing an improv scene, I just wanted to know what you have in your bedroom."

But honestly, the fact that I'm noodling like this over the character in a comedy script is a sign that Scrimshaw knows what he's doing.  He doesn't write disposable scripts.  Everything's got nuggets in it that are worth reconsidering, revisiting, and remounting.  Joking Envelope is always trying something new, even as they consistently give audiences what they want - a go-to destination to be entertained, whatever shape that entertainment takes.  They've earned our trust as an audience.  So leave it to me to say, you've earned our trust, now f**k with it.  We'll follow you anywhere.

4-1/2 stars - Very Highly Recommended

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