Directed by Chris Eigeman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Life throws a lot at its participants during their time from birth to death. Some of the experience is pleasant, some of it unpleasant, some of it tolerable, and some of it intolerable. And some of what humankind “suffers” is just odd. One can either choose to take what comes lightly and laugh it up, or be more proactive and stare down the vicissitudes of life until they have to look away. The delightful characters Joe and Cleo in Alan Hruska’s new play “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” spend a lifetime together trying to decide which approach might work better.
Playwright Alan Hruska has concocted an engaging and zany fable-like play that chronicles the relationship between Joe (Jayce Bartok) and Cleo (Katya Campbell) who spend twenty five years together determining whether or not Joe’s hypothesis is workable: “There’s really no need to settle on anything less than ecstatic love.” Joe – Joseph P. Allworthy – trades in currencies and Cleo is an anthropologist who teaches at the university. Joe’s optimism as a successful (and worthy) currency trader is often tempered by Cleo’s comprehensive knowledge of the human condition. What Joe experiences as “the natural order of things” Cleo identifies as the challenges of entropy. The pair bumble and bicker their way through dating, marriage, childbirth, and aging with enough aplomb to endear any audience looking for an alternative way to understand the “meaning” of life and love.
Under Chris Eigeman’s careful and intelligent direction, Mr. Bartok and Ms. Campbell navigate the terrain of fable and absurdity without becoming cartoons. They deliver engaging and authentic performances that give the audience enough room to “laugh it up” and yet – with these two characters – maintain the needed distance to stare down their own roadblocks on the journey to find meaningful relationships founded on indelible intimacy – intimacy that accompanies Joe and Cleo through real and imagined affairs, unexpected pregnancy, a stolen baby boy, whacky friends Stephen (Maury Ginsberg) and Dorothy (Amy Hargreaves), the would be burglar Chalmers (Mr. Ginsberg), the disingenuous Italian tour guide Arturo (also Mr. Ginsberg), and the terminally ill neighbor in Rhode Island Alberta (Ms. Hargreaves).
Mr. Bartok and Ms. Campbell are fortunate to have Maury Ginsberg and Amy Hargreaves as ensemble cast members. Each brings remarkable performances to their various characters giving each a unique and believable personality which counterpoint brilliantly the dynamic characters created by Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell whose transformation from stock characters to well-rounded characters rooted in reality is remarkable.
Kevin Judge’s set is marvelously multipurpose and were it not for the extensive set change between Acts Two and Three, the piece could easily have fit into 80 action-driven minutes. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are always appropriate and Matthew J. Fick’s lighting sparkles with energy and clarity. And the oversized chandelier that slowly inches down between scenes to mark the passing of time (brilliant, Kevin Judge!) eventually becomes the buoy that (perhaps) rescues Joe and Cleo from the storm (literal and figurative storms).
Perhaps “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” does not fully answer the question of the attainability of ecstatic love but I am not sure that was the point of Mr. Hruska’s script. Cleo says it best at the play’s end as she and Joe cling for life to a buoy and wonder if the boat approaching is real or an illusion (wonderful tropes for the vicissitudes of life). As Joe waffles between hope and despair, Cleo admonishes him to: “Just do, Joe! Just do!” That is perhaps the very best humankind can do in the face of unspeakable joy and equally unspeakable sorry. “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” is engaging, entertaining, and existentially satisfying and well worth the visit to the iconic Cherry Lane Theatre. Just, do, kind reader. Just do!