Comedy hardly plays it 'straight'

The program cover for "The Straight Man," a new play by Lawrence writer Danny Schluck, is ambiguously sly in its printed convictions.

It deems the 16/16 Productions project a "seriously funny comedy" in an altogether unassuming Arial font.

However, if you're 20 minutes early to the show and feeling settled in your seat, this phrase might give you pause.

"What is a 'seriously funny comedy,' anyway?" you might ask. "Wait ... is that like being 'very pregnant?'"

The person sitting beside you is likely clearing his or her throat by now; a furrowed brow should be expected.

"If you're pregnant, you're pregnant, right?" you persist. "There's no 'very' about it."

Your neighbor is scanning the audience somewhat frantically, searching for a familiar face or a attractive stranger.

"So, isn't comedy ... well, comedy?" you press on. "Of course it's 'funny,' but it isn't serious ... seriously!"

Notice you are now an island in an otherwise moderately crowded auditorium, like a language leper without a friend.

Let this be a lesson to you -- actually, let it be two: 1) Don't ever arrive 20 minutes early to a play -- you'll likely end up lonely and confused; and 2) Comedy is never just comedy, especially in the hands of Schluck and his directing partner, Chad Ostrom.

"The Straight Man," which opened Thursday and has its second and final performance at 7 p.m. today at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H., is a study in how to "bring the funny" without losing a story's deeper resonance.

The play focuses on Morgan (Brandon Delany), a young gay man confronted by a series of problems. First his father dies. Then Morgan is the victim of a violent homophobic hate-crime. As a result, he suffers a bout of stress-induced amnesia, which leads to an affair with Sam (Therese Buchheister), a woman who happens to be a longtime friend. Short 'n' sweet Morgan synopsis? First he's gay, then he's not, then he is. Add said drama and Schluck's snarky dialogue.

But that's just one storyline. "The Straight Man" gives many characters equal billing (Be warned: The play is nearly four hours long). Dave (Josh Dubois) is an accidental millionaire who owns a bar, and Alto (Bryce Ostrom) is an affable former egghead turned pothead. Neither is happy.

There are many more wonderful characters to mention (a shout-out is due to the scene-stealing Vikki, played by Kate Gissel), and it's impossible to do them all justice. Take it as motivation to see tonight's show. But it is important to say this: For every witty one-liner that Schluck peppers into the script, there is another heartfelt statement that catches you off-guard, all the more because of its surroundings. That's a really, truly, seriously great method for driving a story home.

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