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'Laughing Wild' both funny and frightening

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'Laughing Wild' both funny and frightening




What a shame Annette Madias and her Detroit-based Actors Alliance Theatre Company don’t visit Ann Arbor more often. Every time this extraordinary group takes the stage at Performance Network, they routinely blow all thespian opposition out of the water (i.e. the incendiary “Forty Deuce” or Beth Henley’s “The Wake of Jamey Foster”).

Now Madias & Co. have taken Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild” - a raging, wisecracking mess on paper - and elevated it precisely to the playwright’s stated intentions: “absurdist comedy married to real feelings.”

Like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces couldn’t possibly fit, Durang’s surrealist derangements miraculously fall into place under Madias’ inspired direction and the virtuoso turns of stars Miriam Yezbeck and Rick Frederick. All at once “Laughing Wild’s” plotless, multi-topical verbal meanderings on New York and the world in general make sense via Madias’ simple-as-a-teardrop revelation of this “comedy’s” somber theme: the desperate struggle of lonely men and women to cope with a society often too complex to endure.

And though one might wish Durang had simply ended his play following the opening, consecutive soliloquies by his two protagonists (simply dubbed The Woman and The Man) Madias and her players work imaginative wonders with a second act that’s pure dream surrealism. Yet I’m still reeling at the comi-tragic veracity of those soliloquies, encompassing some of the best acting you’ll ever see on a stage.

Seated stage front, actress Yezbick’s black-dudded, moderately chic Woman at first seems a typical frazzle-nerved New Yorker - bitching about how lousy her day’s been, due first to a violent (and hilarious) supermarket fight with a customer who’s blocking the tuna fish shelves, then to a raging argument with a cab driver. Yet it soon becomes clear our heroine is in fact a deeply disturbed soul - a frequent visitor to mental hospitals, perpetually jobless, and so pathetically and angrily lonely that she flies into rages about wanting to see famous people “killed,” or even wishing for “the whole world to come to a complete and total end.”

In the process, Yezbick mates Durang’s “absurdism” and “real feelings” to a degree I would never have dreamed possible. A wonderfully naturalistic actress, Yezbick offers up wisecracks spanning shock treatments to Mother Theresa, while emitting roaring cackles from Hell rivaling The Wicked Witch of the West. Yet through all her disjointed rifting, Yezbick allows us to see the terror lurking behind the mask, the pathetic insecurity and aloneness.

At one point in her motor-mouth monologue, the woman stops to ask, “Are you following me so far?” scanning the audience, her face bearing a look of genuine fear of rejection. A master of nervous fidgets, our self-absorbed heroine offers cracked contradictions (“I don’t have any self-confidence. I think I’m special”) then hits us with self-loathing truth: “Are you enjoying my company? Or would you like to see me go away?” It’s a scorching portrait of a beautiful loner who yearns for friends, for a job, yet who can find solace solely in deep-breathing.

The same is true for Durang’s Man, a pessimistic soul groping vainly at the edges of New-Age positivism. Though less a fringe-person than The Woman, our male is a jittery, often anguished professional sufferer beset by everything from fear of thugs on subways and boors in moviehouses to his own bisexuality. One moment Frederick’s Man is doing “happiness exercises” (“I am one with the universe”); the next he’s bitterly play-acting a psychotic, AIDS-wreaking God (“Boy, do I find homosexuals disgusting”).

One of course wishes these desperately unhappy people would come together (In fact they already have, albeit unwittingly in the above-mentioned supermarket fight). And though Durang offers a union of sorts in his dreamlike Act II, nothing there can equal the power of those opening monologues.

Yet Madias, her actors and set-light designer David Nelson have conjured up quite the craziest nightmare sequence I’ve seen on a stage, conjuring flashing lights, demonic music and ghostly performances amidst blocks of granite that could have sprung from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” And we haven’t even mentioned the presence of Sally Jessie Raphael, The Infant of Prague, The Harmonic Convergence - plus more tuna fish.

It’s an amazing production, complexly acted (Frederick’s Man is both the most frightening and frightened wimp you’ll ever encounter) and utterly true to the play’s title, taken from Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” — “laughing wild amid severest woe.” Precisely.

'Laughing Wild' will continue at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington, through Aug. 25. For ticket information call 663-0681.