Review: ‘Laughing Matters’

A stint on John Davidson's 1969 summer replacement series isn't exactly a resume scorcher, but toss in a handful of appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," numerous club dates, assorted guest shots and character roles and you have a workmanlike career. What you don't have is enough material for a one-man bio-show.

A stint on John Davidson’s 1969 summer replacement series isn’t exactly a resume scorcher, but toss in a handful of appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” numerous club dates, assorted guest shots and character roles and you have a workmanlike career. What you don’t have is enough material for a one-man bio-show.

At least not in the hands of Nick Ullett, a likable chap who was once half of the 1960s British comedy team Ullett and Hendra and who later made his livelihood playing garden-variety English twits in countless supporting roles. In “Laughing Matters,” Ullett has fashioned a 90-minute reminiscence about the last 30 years of his life, from his move to the U.S. at the height of 1964’s Beatles-inspired Anglomania, through a borderline successful comedy career, a more successful (at least financially) stint in advertising, and four marriages.

And, oh yes, cancer — the ostensible point of the evening. Four years ago, Ullett was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and “Laughing Matters” is his story of descending into the horrific abyss of chemotherapy, unrelenting nausea, depression, hospital hell, remission, relapse and remission yet again.

At least on Bruce Goodrich’s serviceable den-like set, Ullett handles it all with a grace and honesty that an audience would expect. And there’s the problem. Battles with illness, however lamentable, are not exactly unusual on today’s stages, and Ullett never displays the fresh perspective needed to startle, or even hold attention. Who doesn’t know — or hasn’t seen — the paralyzing effects of toxic medicines used to kill cancer? And where is the sense of theater that can jolt an audience into feeling the terror, something Evan Handler accomplished in his similarly themed show several seasons back simply by stretching his hospital bill, a voluminous computer print-out, across the entire stage?

Moreover, Ullett takes far too long getting to his anticlimax. Despite his occasional reminder of looming illness, Ullett spends what seems to be three-quarters of his stage time recounting his unspectacular career — in detail — and his four marriages — three failed, one ongoing and none, at least in this telling, even vaguely interesting. Indeed, Ullett’s charm fails him when a certain cattiness creeps into his anecdotes about his ex-wives, and one suspects that life with this comedian wasn’t always a laugh fest even before the cancer.

Interspersed through the reminiscences are the folksy, satiric songs Ullett performed with his old comedy partner, dusty parodies of the Beatles and Bob Dylan that, frankly, must have seemed mediocre and hopelessly unhip even when the Sullivan show aired three decades ago. And does anyone really want to hear the sappy love song he sang at one of his weddings?

Ullett struggles to extract meaning from his experiences, with some patness about the randomness of life and the futility of leaving one’s mark. Despite falling far short of profundity or even insight, he really does seem a pleasant enough sort. We leave the theater wishing him a full and disease-free life — we just aren’t aching to hear any more about it.

Laughing Matters

Production

NEW YORK A Primary Stages Company presentation, in association with Arthur Cantor, of a play in one act written and performed by Nick Ullett. Directed by Rick Podell. Sets and

Crew

Lights, Bruce Goodrich; production manager, Andrew Leynse; production stage manager, Liz Dreyer. Primary Stages artistic director, Casey Childs. Opened Sept. 8, 1994, at Primary Stages. Reviewed Sept. 13; 99 seats; $ 25 top. Running time: 90 MIN.
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