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Review: ‘The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged)’ Wrestles with the Funny

Produced by Theater in the Park, and directed by Ira Wood IV – The Complete History Of Comedy (Abridged)  is a crash-course through comedic history, via a series of loosely connected sketches and narration that deliberately flaunts the fourth wall.

Patrick Whalen, Preston Campbell, and Ira David Wood IV perform all the roles in this pre-recorded small screen adaptation, and do so with undeniable dexterity and animation. Additionally, the play’s production value is superb, shot in high definition and staged with excellent costume and set design.

Why, then, does nothing seem to work?

First of all, the script itself is problematic – laden with discomfiting stereotypes and timeworn sitcom tropes. The dialogue often lapses into an eye-glazing litany of pop-culture references, with most of Act II being “filler” in this vein. In one mercilessly long sketch, Wood (“Ira”) rattles off an interminable list of comedians’ names above the grating strums of a ukulele. Another, equivalently agitating sketch is nothing more than visual inventory of prank props (whoopee cushions, fake vomit, etc.) that serve only as a clunky reference to the board game Operation. In yet another sketch – in an aside – the actors inform the audience (via subtitles) that they are uncomfortable with a certain ambiguously racist joke they are making. While this self-acknowledgement is clearly meant to be comic, it comes across as a paltry attempt to absolve its own insensitivity.

This is not to say the show was not without its strengths – primarily the flamboyant physical presence of the performers; but rather than counteracting the show’s tonal shortcomings, the acrobatic antics of the performers tends to amplify them. The pace and volume of their delivery was not adjusted for the intimacy and nuance that the prerecorded format might have afforded. Lines were executed as they presumably would be to a live audience – highly inflected, and frequently shouted – creating a cacophonous effect for the small screen.

Although theater has proved it can function effectively on screen, a comedy like this one requires the electric anonymity of a live audience to land successfully, which this production lacks. Consequently, this video of The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) is like a mediocre sitcom wherein the laugh-track has been removed.

The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) runs through March 14th. For more information visit https://www.theatreinthepark.com/.

For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit the RDU on Stage Calendar Page.

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