Playwright Ken Ludwig has been responsible for some of the McCarter’s Theatre Center’s best productions of recent years. There was “Baskerville,” his clever Sherlock Holmes adaptation, in 2015; the riotous farce “A Comedy of Tenors” (a sequel to his popular “Lend Me a Tenor”), later that year; and his stylish “Murder on the Orient Express” adaptation, in 2017.
“The Gods of Comedy,” which is making its world premiere at the Princeton theater through March 31, isn’t quite as good, though it does have a clever premise and enough laughs to make it worth seeing. Too many of the silly slapstick gags fall flat, though, and the story is haphazardly constructed.
Ludwig will try anything for a laugh — at one point, the actors imitate Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz playing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo — but some of his ideas, like that one, should have been edited out.
I can’t say I hated or loved “The Gods of Comedy.” It’s a play that seems to have the potential to be great, but turned out just okay.
It begins in modern Greece, where repressed, nervous classics professor Daphne (Shay Vawn) saves a vendor’s son from being hit by a bus, and he thanks her by giving her talisman that has the power to summon the ancient Greek gods. She reluctantly accepts it (not believing it’s anything special), returns home, and forgets about it.
She’s got a crush on a colleague, Ralph (Jevon McFerrin), who manages to find a manuscript for a lost Euripides play, “Andromeda,” that is believed to be the first play to show a couple falling in love. This is a huge deal in the classics world, and will make Ralph an academic star. In a very contrived sequence, Ralph asks Daphne to keep an eye on the manuscript for a little while, and she ends up losing it.
Distraught and desperate, she gives her talisman a try. And — lo and behold! — two Greek gods materialize in her office: Dionysus, god of wine (Tony-nominee Brad Oscar) and Thalia, muse of comedy (Jessie Cannizzaro).
Uninhibited, fun-loving and very humanly flawed, they take over the play. Oscar seems to be channeling Dom DeLuise as he depicts the goofy, genial Dionysus, and Cannizzaro’s shrill ditziness is sometimes reminiscent of Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker character on “Will & Grace.”
Oscar and Cannizzaro work hard, but as I said, the humor is very hit-or-miss. Dionysus comes to love modern American cheeseburgers. Thalia, it turns out, has had relationships with many big historical names, and is eager to dish about them (Alexander, she maintains, wasn’t that Great).
Like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” they’ve got a lot riding on this, claiming they could be banished from the gods’ home on Mount Olympus if they aren’t successful in their mission.
Of course, the manuscript is eventually recovered (sort of), Daphne develops a backbone, and Dionysus and Thalia are able to claim a win.
Among the supporting characters, George Psomas makes the biggest impression as Ares, the Greek god of war, who arrives on the scene as well — in a mix-up, after Dionysus and Thalia attempt to summon Apollo, who presumably would be more helpful — and adds to the craziness. (Psomas also plays two other small roles).
In one of Ludwig’s sharpest jokes, a college dean (played by Keira Naughton), thinking Ares is just in costume for a party, asks what he does for a living.
“Rape and pillage,” he responds, matter-of-factly. And so she assumes he’s a banker.
Like Dionysus and Thalia, Ares is not just less-than-godly but positively cartoonish — a vain, oversexed brute. But he gives Ludwig some new options to explore and, in fact, makes one wonder how much better this play could have been — how much wilder, and more chaotic — if more gods got in on the action.
“The Gods of Comedy” will be at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through March 31; visit mccarter.org.
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