It’s 40 years since “Enter Laughing” was the vehicle for the ascent to stardom by a young Alan Arkin. Written by Joseph Stein from Carl Reiner’s semiautobiographical novel of the same name, the Jewish backstage comedy-farce was never a great play, though it ran for a year on Broadway in 1963-64. It hasn’t improved with age, and the Berkshire Theater Festival’s revival gets its 75th anniversary season off to a less than salubrious start. “Enter Laughing” is definitely the sort of play they don’t write anymore.
Fresh from his lively staging of tuner “Me and My Girl” to open the 40th season at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., Scott Schwartz has brought his vigorous imagination to Stein’s script. To begin with, he has cut the cast down to eight, with a number of the actors doubling roles. This in itself gives rise to several big laughs. But he also has broadened the play by turning virtually all of the characters into caricatures, which they weren’t originally.
Schwartz also has set the play, legitimately, in a way that makes it look as though all its scenes are taking place in a theater, with thesps not part of a given scene sitting in theater seats behind footlights at the rear of the set watching their cohorts perform. The cast also helps with scene changes when not involved in quick costume or character changes.
The plot is simple enough: Teenage David Kolowitz (Jesse Bernstein), a recent graduate of a Bronx high school, is working as a messenger boy for Mr. Foreman (Ron Orbach), a sewing-machine repairman. David is a self-admitted “nothin’ who wants to be a somethin’,” specifically an actor (he does, he thinks, a good impersonation of Ronald Colman). He’s hired by a down-on-its-luck theater company run by one Marlowe (also Orbach), a histrionic old actor-manager who sips booze through a straw from a flask in an upper pocket.
Though David is half her size, Marlowe’s voluptuous daughter and leading lady, Angela (Rebecca Creskoff), chooses him as her new leading man. Naturally David is a hopeless actor, though not a hopeless kisser, and rehearsals proceed apace.
The play’s climax is David’s disastrous stage debut, for which the set (too busy for the small Stockbridge stage) is turned inside out, bringing the footlights to the fore for a play within the play, a hoary Southern melodrama.
To state that all of these goings-on are presented broadly, with few if any Jewish cliches resisted, is to put it mildly. Naturally David has “Jewish” parents, a smothering mother and a put-upon father.
As David, Bernstein, who looks much younger than Arkin did, works hard without having quite the personality to carry the play. And if Orbach tends to go over the top from time to time, he clearly differentiates between his Mr. Foreman and his Marlowe, and the two perfs have real theatrical flair. Creskoff’s apparently Tallulah-inspired Angela is amusing, as are her appearances as luscious secretary Miss B. Within the limitations of the script and Schwartz’s blatant approach to it, the rest of the cast is acceptable.
There is, however, no doubt that BTF executive director Kate Maguire should have chosen something less groan-inducing and more in line with the BTF’s often distinguished past with which to open its 75th season.