There's an art to playing a drunkard on the stage. Play it too subtle, and no one notices the character is supposed to be hammered. Ham it up and, well, you might as well be channelling Dudley Moore's Arthur by way of Whose Line is it Anyway? — it'll be a complete and utter groaner.
Threshold Repertory Theatre director Robin Burke knows this quite well. In fact, Burke and actor Jay Danner have been trying to get the art of being sloshed just right as part of their preparations for the troupe's latest, Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell.
Penned by the mother-and-son duo of V. Cate and Duke Ernsberger, Don't Cry is a screwball comedy about the frantic week that went into rewriting the screenplay for Gone with the Wind from scratch, a set of circumstances that took place three weeks after production had already begun. Complicating matters, Gone with the Wind's latest screenwriter Ben Hecht (Danner) has never read the book. Even worse, when the curtain rises, he's so far in the cups he'd make T-Rav blush.
And therein lies the rub for a performer.
Burke notes that Danner comes from a dramatic background, not a comedic one where the fine line between humor-baked ham and punchline crickets can be very, very small. "Jay's more of a school of 'I want to play this realistically. It's important that I'm motivated, and I know what's happening, and I have an idea I know what's going on.' Sometimes that's very, very difficult to do in a comedy like this," Burke says, adding that one challenge for any actor is sometimes certain aspects of a specific performance disappear as a play progresses. "You can't play drunk the entire scene, the entire day. You have to choose the point where you establish it is happening, you establish that it is going on, and the audience realizes what's happening, and then you slowly transition into a different phase of your character within the context of that day."
Like Danner, Threshold's Brendan Kelly, who plays the megalomanical speed-freak producer David O. Selznick, is traditionally more at home in dramas, while seasoned vet Nat Jones, Don't Cry's Victor Fleming, and Sarah Coe (Ms. Peabody) are both well-versed in generating guffaws.
Needless to say, perfecting a comedy — particularly one with rapid-fire dialogue and physical humor — is serious business. "We spend a lot of time working on the physical bits," Burke says. "One of the crucial things about physical comedy is working on your timing together. And as you run and run and run, it gets easier and easier to anticipate those moments when your cast members are going to react to something you do."
"The most important thing for them, and they're getting very good at it at this point, is blending their own sense of timing and learning to work together as a cast," he adds. "It is true. You cannot teach timing, but you can certainly absorb timing from your cast members."
However, repetiton breeds familiarity and familiarity is the enemy of funny, a truth that is doublely true when dealing with such a well-known movie as Gone with the Wind. Burke, for one, was well-versed in the many trials and tribulations leading up to the classic film's very labored birth — from switching directors to fighting censors to working with the NAACP to craft a cinematic tale that was blissfully free of slave labor, the Klan, and the use of the dreaded N-word. And for the director, the craziness is familiar. "The insanity that is Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell, is almost a direct parallel to the insanity of putting on a comedy. It is incredibly hard to do," Burke says.
"On the first read through, everybody laughs because it's fresh and it's new and it's funny, and then you start working on it," he adds. "You work the same little bit over and over again, just like these guys are working the scene from Gone with the Wind over and over again to try to come up with the perfect screenplay and the right words for it. What happens is, you lose sight of the big picture and the funny in it because you're so caught up in the details."
When dealing with his actors on Don't Cry, Burke has given them some advice that helps them get into character. "While everything is true, while everything is real, you have to look at a comedy like this as something that is set in its own little universe. It's a parallel universe to our own. But everything is a little bit tight, a little bit bigger," he says. "And you have to remember basic comedy rules: Once the joke is done, you move on. You don't hold grudges. Each moment is a new moment because that feeds comedy."