Comedy an endangered species onstage

To paraphrase a late, great thespian’s deathbed proclamation: ” ‘Wit’ is easy, comedy is hard.”

While dramas like Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winner about a dying cancer patient flourish Off Broadway, comedies are having a harder time of it — whether on the Great White Way, Off Broadway or on the road.

For decades, American pop fare such as “The Moon Is Blue,” “A Thousand Clowns,” “Any Wednesday” and “Barefoot in the Park” were a tradition on Broadway, but they now represent a lineage without descendants.

Excluding one-man sketch routines, only a handful of laffers even bothered to open in the last few seasons.

Currently, Larry Coen and David Crane’s “Epic Proportions” is averaging a paltry $70,000 a week. One has to go back to 1995 to find something resembling a real winner in the genre: Ken Ludwig’s farce “Moon Over Buffalo,” which probably owed at least a few of its 308 perfs to the star power of Carol Burnett.

“What was the last romantic comedy on Broadway?” asked producer-publicist Jeffrey Richards, who in May opened Peter Ackerman’s “Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight” at the Off Broadway Promenade Theater, where it played 197 performances. Considering the fate of the genre, that six-month stint is beginning to look like a marathon run.

Richards, who produced the comedy with a consortium of other producers, recalls that critics who didn’t like the show compared it to a most-maligned artform: the TV sitcom.

“TV is seen as taking the place of a nice, light situation comedy,” said Ludwig. “Everybody thinks this period is a glum, sarcastic, edgy, dark time. Producers don’t feel there are stars in the right alignment to produce comedies.”

According to Peter Hagan, an agent at the Gersh Agency, “TV has raised the stakes for playwrights, and that’s a good thing. It’s bad in that we’ve lost something that was a comfortable mainstay of the commercial theater.” Hagan also puts thrillers and courtroom dramas on the endangered list of legit species that have gone on to flourish elsewhere.

Ludwig said the situation is “more inviting” in London, where his next play — an as-yet-untitled comedy about two actors involved in an inheritance swindle — will have its world premiere next year. “Moon Over Buffalo” is also skedded to open in the West End in the 2000-2001 season.

“The British appear to be more accepting of comedies,” said Ludwig. Indeed, Alan Ayckbourn, the Neil Simon of British theater, continues to get produced; his latest and umpteenth comedy, “Comic Potential,” is currently in performance.

“If Memory Serves,” Jonathan Tolins’ comedy about a legendary sitcom star (read: Mary Tyler Moore), opens in December at the Promenade Theater. The playwright said he’s annoyed when critics contend that all the good scribes have been usurped by movies and television.

“Is that why movies and TV are so wonderful?” he asked rhetorically. “Is anyone arguing that? A playwright is someone who writes plays. It is a craft apart.”

The derogatory comparisons with sitcoms also greeted the current romantic comedy “Maybe Baby, It’s You,” by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, at the SoHo Playhouse. “But some of the best comedy-writing is sitcom-writing,” insisted Richards.

Comic catharsis

He spoke eloquently of the “cathartic effect” of sitting with a live audience in full throttle. But when theatergoers pay upward of $49.50 for something they could see on TV, is it any wonder that “Sex in the City” is the more attractive, not to mention raunchier, alternative?

While musicals and dramas (including revivals) are well represented in New York and on the road, comedy is an endangered species.

Playwright Tolins says good riddance. “Frothy sex comedies? Do we want them?” he asked.

Even the vogue for revivals has included few comedies; the Broadway productions of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” in 1996 (starring Frank Langella), and Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” (with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall) the following year are the exceptions.

Despite the formidable competition, good legit comedy isn’t dead. It’s alive and well but living in a very different place. Theatergoers who think otherwise should check out Becky Mode’s “Fully Committed,” just closed at the Vineyard but soon to reopen commercially at the Cherry Lane Theater, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Fuddy Meers” at Manhattan Theater Club.

Unlike “Maybe Baby” or “Things You Shouldn’t Say,” the respective comedies of Mode and Lindsay-Abaire could never translate to TV, or vice versa. Wondrously stage-bound, they revel in theatrical devices — the puppets and nonsense wordplay in “Fuddy Meers,” the multiple characterizations in the one-person “Fully Committed” — that would look archaic, if not downright lame, on the tube.

Surprise, surprise

“So much of good comedy is based on surprise, the unexpected,” Lindsay-Abaire said. “It’s very difficult to surprise within a sitcom” — though there have been exceptions. ” ‘Seinfeld’ surprised with its irreverence and its Rube Goldberg plots. With ‘Frasier,’ the writing is so sharp, and its structure is like a Feydeau farce.”

But as for Lindsay-Abaire joining a sitcom team of scribes: “I don’t see myself sitting in a room with eight guys. My head doesn’t work in the way of setup/punchline, setup/punchline, setup/punchline. My characters are loose cannons, they are extremists,” he said of the lunatics in his road-trip play about an amnesiac.

Mode does write for a sitcom, “Cosby,” and readily admits that the day gig helped her write “Fully Committed,” about a restaurant’s reservations clerk who impersonates a few dozen callers during the course of its 90 minutes.

Drawing the laugh line

As for translating her legit comedy to the sitcom format, “Fully Committed” would necessarily turn into a “Cheers” retread if Mode fleshed out all the characters actor Mark Setlock impersonates onstage. And there she draws the line: “I’ve tried to continue to think of it as a one-person show,” she said.

Lisa Loomer, who wrote for the John Ritter-Markie Post sitcom “Hearts Afire,” also values the sitcom experience, but draws a sharp distinction between the two disciplines.

“Sitcom writing gave me a very keen sense of the line,” said the author of “The Waiting Room” and “Broken Hearts,” which just opened at L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater. “So with actors in the theater, I know that adding a syllable or an extra word will kill a laugh line.”

But instead of cranking out ersatz sitcoms for the stage, Loomer finds she’s gone in the opposite direction.

“TV has propelled me to be more theatrical in the theater. Sitcoms are like writing haiku. I fought against it, then you begin to appreciate the limitations of the form. But in the end I always ran to the theater for relief.”

Heightened theatricality

A heightened only-in-the-theater theatricality is at work in the best of today’s comedies. It’s a high style also found in great musicals, and may help to explain why that legit form continues to proliferate on Broadway and the road: Film and TV can’t compete here and have essentially abandoned shows with song and dance to the arena of live performances.

Whether legit comedy will ever become less marginalized and speak to those larger audiences, as musicals now do, is open for question.

Until then, a “comfortable mainstay,” as Hagan put it, is lost — and with it, a tradition that can’t all together be laughed off.

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