When Christopher Durang wrote his nervous breakdown of a play nearly 20 years ago, “Laughing Wild” reflected the anxiety of AIDS in a world gone mad. While some of the names mentioned might no longer be topical — Dr. Ruth, Sally Jessy Raphael, Mother Theresa, the Harmonic Convergence — the consuming cultures of sex, celebrity, religion and self- helpdom have not abated. Add the manic-depressive humor and the paranoia of unimagined urban terrors waiting outside one’s door and you have a fitting play for a new era.
The revival of the two-hander receives a hysterical production at the Huntington from the simpatico team of director Nicholas Martin, actress Debra Monk and the playwright himself, in the role he originated.
Taking a Beckett line to heart — “laughing wild amid severest woe” — Durang crafts a lunatic work in which two characters, simply labeled Woman (Monk) and Man (Durang), are overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world around them. Desperate to communicate and connect, they seek sanctuary in asylums, clinics and, during the course of the play, a theater. Like the lonely, lost and ever-fearful characters, the production makes one unsure whether to scream with laughter or just scream.
The first to arrive onstage, Monk is dressed as an uptown sophisticate. But despite her poise and charm, it becomes clear that something is off-balance as she chatters on. She recounts her recent exasperating experiences, first in the grocery store, where she encounters a man blocking the shelves of tuna fish, then with a cab driver, then with a street musician. Before long, this mad and melancholy baby ends up literally in the gutter, crying — and laughing wild — for help.
Monk is in perfect sync with Durang’s comic/tragic mood swings and stream-of-conscious prattle (“I wonder if Ibsen would have liked me?” she suddenly ponders). But what makes the character more than a neurotic/psychotic joke is her real pain as Monk exposes her wrecked heart, increasing panic and severe despair (“I wish I was dead,” she says off-handedly, and we realize she’s not kidding).
Neither is Durang when he appears as a man trying, with crystals, chants and affirmations, to turn his negative outlook positive. But his fears about the sudden terrors of life keep getting in the way, especially when he is revealed as the man in the tuna fish aisle who innocently set off the woman in the first scene. While not as technically adept and heartbreaking as Monk’s performance, Durang’s innocence-with-a-twist-of-bitters attitude and natural affinity for his own comic voice are pluses.
As his character becomes increasingly upset over Chernobyl, the Supreme Court, the ozone layer and, especially, AIDS, he imagines a cruel, fickle and inconsistent God. Durang’s Man is seeking something better to believe in and a life that’s more sane. But like Monk’s crazy woman, he finds that search maddening, settling instead for simply the next deep breath — and the one after that.
In the second act, the characters meet in each other’s dreams. While fast-moving and funny, some of the surreal pieces grow tiresome — especially an extended scene with Durang as the Infant of Prague and Monk as a faux-Sally Jessy. However, when the two lost souls have a harmonic convergence of their own at play’s end, there’s a sweet moment of shared longing and fear. That’s what the play does for an audience, even as it annoys, disturbs and offends.
“Tell me, are you enjoying my company or are you wishing I’d go away?” Monk asks the aud early on. Playwright Durang asks the same question, but those who keep their own faith, laugh wildly and keep breathing may discover they are more connected to each other than they think.